TORONTO — On May 28, both women and men celebrated the world’s first Menstrual Hygiene Day. As part of a project by WaterAid, Save the Children and several other aid organizations affiliated with public health, Menstrual Hygiene Day aims to shine light on a taboo subject with serious yet largely unspoken implications. The hashtag #MenstruationMatters is being used to raise awareness about the topic on Twitter and to start much needed discussions on this major health issue.
Although taboos about menstruation are being broken down in much of the Western world, most parts of the developing world still shy away from talk about periods. Parents regularly refuse to discuss menstruation with their daughters. Without access to information about their own reproductive health, many of these girls become confused and embarrassed by their bodies.
The lack of women’s sanitary products in developing countries is especially important. Around the world, many women use such items as old rags, corn husks, newspaper, mattress padding or even tree bark in place of pads when none are available. These materials, which are commonly dirty, abrasive or bacteria-ridden, can harm a woman’s genital region, resulting in mild to major infection.
Even when these materials do not cause infections, most of them are ineffective at absorbing blood and lead to leakage, staining clothing or furniture. Women who have experienced the stress and embarrassment associated with leakage eventually fear moving around when they are on their period and may not leave their homes to go to school or work. Schoolgirls who stain the seats of their uniforms may be teased by peers and even teachers.
Most schools and workplaces cannot provide women with clean toilets, sanitary pads or even basic health information.
In India, as many as 66 percent of girls’ schools lack functioning toilets. This places extra pressure on female students and workers, who may be driven to skip school due to stigma.
In Ethiopia, an estimated 50 percent of girls miss one to four days of school every month on account of their periods. Girls who miss this much school often give up and drop out. According to Unesco, an estimated 10 percent of African girls will quit school because of difficulties associated with menstruation.
Because the topic of menstruation is so scandalized, the consequences of ignoring female sexual health are often hidden, rarely published and seldom spoken. Yet menstruation and women’s health are not just women’s issues but also human rights issues with broader consequences. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says that the investments made in the lives of girls and women produce greater returns than any other investments made in the developing world.
Progress is being made in widening the discussion and empowering women in the developing world. In Kenya, for example, reducing an import tax on feminine hygiene products has lowered the cost of these goods by 18 percent, easing consumer access.
World leaders are also starting to realize how important it is to talk about menstruation. The UN, its related bodies and other aid organizations have acknowledged that poor menstrual hygiene infringes on women’s education and equality in the workplace.
As with Menstrual Hygiene Day, other events and activities have grown up around the subject.
Menstravaganza, a Toronto-based film festival and panel discussion, is a new event affiliated with Menstrual Hygiene Day. Taking place on May 29, the event’s goal is to discuss menstruation and encourage its audience members to break the silence and break taboo. Though all guests are welcome, organizers go out of their way to encourage men to attend, saying that they are “very welcome” at the screenings and talks.
50 Cents. Period. is an organization whose mission “is to empower women and girls to stay fully engaged in their lives and educations without the stigma and barriers surrounding their period, gender and reproductive choices.” The group raises money to send sanitary pads, clean underwear and reproductive education teachers to remote parts of the world where women’s needs are least represented. Their project relies on local involvement, partnering with local women rather than giving hand-outs or “mothering” anyone. Like Toronto’s Menstravaganza, 50 Cents. Period. seeks to engage men in the discussion about menstruation in order to create a safe environment for all people in the community.
Through these efforts and more, politicians and activists are striving to open up communication about menstruation in the developing world. By improving menstrual hygiene, whole communities can be raised out of poverty and gender equity can be revolutionized for those who are most at risk.