On any given day, more than 800 million
women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 are menstruating worldwide. That’s
right, I said it: menstruating.
For me, being on my period can be a
minor nuisance: uncomfortable, yes, but something I understand, expect, and can
manage safely, hygienically and easily. Unlike millions of girls around the
world, I had the benefit of a mother who understood her menstrual cycle and
talked to me about it when I was young. My father understood it, too, and
didn’t find it dirty or view it as something that made me weak or marginal. I
went to a school where it was included in our puberty and sexuality education
curriculum. And I grew up with ready access to a private toilet with a sink and
soap, towels and menstrual hygiene products (thanks Mom!), at home, school, and
any other public place I might be.
Unfortunately, my experience sounds
luxurious for many.
For millions of women and girls, there
is no toilet, no sexuality education—possibly not even the chance to go to school.
For some, there may not be menstrual hygiene supplies—save for a cloth that has
been used and reused—and there may be no knowledge about what it means to have
your period, let alone that it’s something normal and natural. In India, for
example, one study found that nearly 70% of girls had no idea what was happening to them
the first time they menstruated.
This lack of information can have a
powerful ripple effect, leading women and girls to be
subjected to stigma, discrimination, violence, or even have food, water,
shelter and other shared goods be withheld from them. As if that weren’t
enough, taboos, cultural norms and the lack of education around menstruation
can contribute to higher school dropout rates, and, in turn, greater likelihood
of early marriage and/or early pregnancy, and a transgenerational cycle of
Suffice to say, menstruation matters.
Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) rarely
appears in donor strategies, national government policies or advocacy agendas. On
a good day, it might be a component of national sexuality education curriculum,
but this presumes kids are going to school and are able to get this information.
Menstrual hygiene management is perhaps on the agenda of health care workers.
But according to a recent report by the World Health
Organization, at least
20% of health care facilities in developing countries don’t have improved toilets
and sanitation facilities—and one-third of the world’s population doesn’t have
improved sanitation at home. And where toilets do exist? Chances are that they
don’t have all of the ‘features’ that women and girls need to manage their
periods safely, effectively and in dignity—simple things like privacy, locking
doors, lights, soap, water, and enough space to change sanitary cloths and wash
and dry them as needed.
Taken together, it remains remarkably difficult
for far too many women and girls in developing countries to put into practice
whatever it is that they might be learning about menstruation hygiene
management—if they’re learning about it at all. This is compounded by questions
of what the men in their lives know and how they
view menstruation, too.
Recently, WaterAid asked
2000 people what they thought would be different if men menstruated instead of
women. One-fifth of those surveyed believed that religious ceremonies would
celebrate the first menses and that there would be new emoticons for use in
telling the social media world that you have your period. One-quarter believed
white sportswear would be banned.
In some ways this was a silly exercise.
It recognized that menstruation is something we’re often uncomfortable
discussing and that humor is often the best way through discomfort. But it also
highlights an important truth: there is a stigma attached to menstruation and
it’s linked to the fact that only women menstruate.
It’s time to bring difficult issues like
menstruation out of the shadows, and to recognize that it is often the things
we take for granted that best indicate how far we’ve come and how much work we
still have to do. Menstrual hygiene is a harbinger of gender equality. It depends
upon equal access to the right types of sanitation facilities, accurate information
shared by men and women alike, and shared ownership from men and women across
sectors and government ministries. But if we get menstrual hygiene right, what
else will have changed in the process?
In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day, and 800
million of my sisters around the world who are menstruating this very minute, join
us in challenging stigma by sharing our new “Manpons” video
and telling the world why you think #MenstruationMatters.