Washington State Non-Profits Promote “Period Pride” for World Menstrual Hygiene Day
By Amber Cortes
It’s known as erdbeerwoche in Germany (which means “strawberry week”); and in China, a woman may mention that her mother’s sister came to visit. English-speaking countries commonly refer to this ‘visitor’ as “Aunt Flo.” And in Brazil, they’ll say, “I’m with Chico,” in reference to socialist Chico Mendes.
In fact, a 2016 survey by the International Women’s Health Coalition found that more than 5,000 euphemisms for having one’s period exist all over the world. And why not — at any given time, according to the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) WaterAid, 800 million women and youth worldwide are menstruating.
And there are just as many lenses as there are words through which to view menstruation: as an inevitable (and miraculous) biological process, a marketing opportunity for glossy tampon commercials, a source of feminist empowerment, or as an unfortunate invitation for “that time of the month” jokes. But here’s one you may not have thought of yet: Menstruation is a human rights issue.
Why? The fact that an estimated 500 million women and girls across the globe lack access to places where they can adequately manage their periods intersects with a host of other crucial global development issues: not just health and sanitation, but also income inequality, sustainable development, and even education. These obstacles place limits on a woman’s ability to live up to her fullest potential.
Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated all over the world this year on May 28, was started in 2013 by health and hygiene non-profit WASH United to address this “menstrual equity gap.” And this year, several Washington state-based global non-profits are promoting period pride – a global menstrual health movement with impacts that can last a lifetime.
The Global Impact
The social stigma and shame attached to menstruation in many cultures can affect a girl’s or woman’s right to education, work, health care, and sense of dignity.
In Western Nepal, there’s a custom known as chhaupadi, in which menstruating women are considered ‘ritually impure,’ and are banished to isolated huts when they have their periods. A recent New York Times article revealed that this practice has led to dozens of women and girls dying while following this tradition over the years.
Perhaps a more common consequence of cultural taboos around menstruation is that girls and young women don’t go to school when they have their periods. According to UNESCO, 10 percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa miss up to 20 percent of the school year due to their menstrual cycle. And over time, the effect of missed days can become cumulative: in India, 23 percent of girls drop out of school due to lack of access to clean toilets, running water, and sanitary pads.
It’s here where the right to education and the right to private and hygienic conditions where a woman can manage her period collide: one study on school absenteeism found that girls in rural Malawi who reported that school toilets lacked privacy were “more than twice as likely to be absent during their menstrual periods than girls at schools where more privacy was available.”
Another significant barrier for girls and women is access to clean, safe, and hygienic menstrual supplies. Girls in resource-poor countries are more likely to use “old cloths, tissue paper, cotton or wool pieces” to manage their menstrual bleeding, which can lead to infections (in India, 65.7 percent of homemade menstrual cloth users reported urogenital infections, compared with only 12.3 percent of those who used sanitary pads).
Access to clean and affordable menstrual supplies is a health and reproductive rights issue. But it’s also one of economic justice—and not just in the developing world, either.
Even in the United States, only nine states so far have opted to exempt what’s known as the “tampon tax”—a sales tax on menstrual products that puts a disproportionate financial strain on low-income women and girls in homeless shelters, prisons, and schools.
When a woman has her period, access to affordable supplies, support, and information becomes a human rights issue. A research guide by Human Rights Watch and WASH United explains: “When women and girls cannot manage their menstrual hygiene, it can negatively impact the extent to which they enjoy certain rights.”
In many cases, finding solutions involves a simple and effective combination of providing both resources and information. In Ghana, a research study found that distributing menstrual pads to students, along with puberty education, “significantly increased school attendance among girls between 12 and 18 years old.”
For the past ten years, PATH has taken a multipronged approach to advocate for improved menstrual health. The organization developed an advocacy messaging framework with partners in India to identify key messages, including the need to eliminate the luxury tax on menstrual products and to develop quality standards. PATH and its partners in India — WaterAid, Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, Development Solutions, Inc, and Zariya — developed a series of documents aimed at destigmatizing menstruation, identifying product options, and addressing the need for waste disposal solutions. PATH also collaborated with partners, University of Nairobi, The Finnish Embassy, and Lunette during Nairobi Innovation Week to address menstrual health as a public health issue and identify innovative market-based approaches to increase access to menstrual products.
And it took 28 iterations for international menstrual rights organization Days for Girls International to develop the patented DfG Kit. Included in the kit are cleverly named DfG PODs (Portable Objects of Dignity) — waterproof and absorbent shields and liners that are affordable, washable, scalable (the kits can expand with other components), and last for years. Days for Girls even uses the DfG PODs to help establish local microenterprises for women who sew and sell the kits to generate income.
For Menstrual Hygiene Day last year, Days for Girls teamed up with Splash, an NGO that focuses on water, sanitation, and hygiene issues, to train students and teachers in Nepal to break down the stigmas and misinformation associated with periods in a series of school-wide events.
These events included creative games and fun challenges that worked to shift the taboos around menstruation “by changing the narrative from shame and embarrassment to one of dignity and celebration.”
Human rights begin with women’s rights. Solving global problems like poverty, health care, child safety, social unrest, and violence starts with understanding the position of women, removing barriers to their success, and fostering their growth … period.
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The following Global Washington members are working to reduce the stigma surrounding menstruation, and ensure that women and girls have access to clean, safe, and hygienic menstrual supplies:
Days for Girls
Days for Girls International is turning periods into pathways. The non-profit increases access to menstrual care and education by developing global partnerships, cultivating social enterprises, mobilizing volunteers, and innovating sustainable solutions that shatter stigmas and limitations for women and girls. Together with its partners, Days for Girls is creating a world with dignity, health, and opportunity for all. The Days for Girls movement has reached more than one million girls — and counting. The organization aims to reach Every Girl. Everywhere. Period. daysforgirls.org
PATH aims to address the right of girls and women to manage their menstrual health with dignity and safety through increasing their awareness of, access to, and use of improved products and systems at scale. PATH’s multidimensional approach includes optimizing menstrual care products, developing sustainable markets to increase access, and advocating for menstrual health through raising awareness and generating and sharing evidence. Specifically, PATH works with partners to optimize the range of menstrual products, incorporating user-centered design, product testing, and identification of product specifications. PATH uses evidence to generate awareness and advocate for effective program and policy responses through strategic partnerships with industry, government, and sustainable commercialization and distribution networks. path.org
While Splash focuses on water, sanitation, and hygiene for all children, the organization also pays special attention to the specific needs of women and girls. Gender-segregated toilets are a crucial part of ensuring that females have a safe and private experience when using sanitation facilities, especially when dealing with menstrual hygiene. Splash ensures that there is water available for cleaning and flushing and that there are waste bins for girls to manage disposable sanitary products. To create a safe space for conversations about Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), Splash also raises awareness of MHM through its hygiene education curriculum and fun event days. splash.org
WaterAid, the #1 ranked international nonprofit for WASH by Guidestar’s Philanthropedia, is dedicated to transforming lives through access to clean water, safe toilets and hygiene education. Whether working with district governments in areas where it implements projects, or speaking before the United Nations, WaterAid ensures that women’s voices are present, helping policy makers and communities understand what can make a tap, toilet, or hygiene education program work for them. Menstrual health education is an integral part of all of WaterAid’s sanitation work globally, including through ‘Menstrual hygiene matters’, a resource for improving menstrual health in communities, schools and emergencies. wateraid.org
World Vision has been engaging intentionally in the area of menstrual hygiene (MH) for the past several years. It has worked to provide MH-friendly facilities in schools and has several projects focusing on providing sustainable access to products. World Vision also develops materials and strategies to address knowledge, attitudes and practices. Most recently, World Vision has been working to develop a multi-sectoral strategy for MH, exploring how better to integrate WASH, health, education, child protection and livelihoods with the goal that women and girls can safely manage their menstrual health with dignity. In honor of MH Day, World Vision, Simavi, WASH United and GIZ are joining forces to launch a free five-part webinar series on menstrual hygiene, starting Thursday, May 31. worldvision.org