Despite being a fact of life many women face shame during menstruation
- International Women’s Day compels us to challenge taboos
The theme for International Women’s Day held in March 2021 ‘chose to challenge’ with emphasis on the idea that a challenged world is an alert one. Despite being a normal and natural biological process menstruation is shrouded in shame in many parts of the world. Some communities consider a menstruating woman impure; women and girls are sent out of the home for the duration of their cycle and restricted from bathing or touching family members. Other communities believe that a menstruating woman will bring her family ill health or bad luck. In addition to this stigma, women frequently lack access to basic hygiene or privacy. Women in many rural areas are forced to use unsanitary materials such as rags, soil, ash, or cow dung because they do not have access to affordable, hygienic, and safe products and facilities.
The Reckitt Global Hygiene Institute (RGHI) was established in 2020 as a catalyst for change and to support the need for more diverse hygiene science and collaborative engagement. This was emphasised in a recent Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Report which examined the burden, challenges, and opportunities of hygiene topics at four key life stages including ‘Adolescence and hygiene: a focus on menstrual hygiene’. The EIU Report focussed on the need for a life-course approach which can increase the effectiveness of interventions throughout a person’s life. Education which enables an understanding of the basic facts of menstruation and how to manage this process with dignity and without fear is vital.
Simon Sinclair, Executive Director, RGHI said: “Menstrual health and hygiene are incredibly complex public health issues because they engage so many distinct sectors. A collaborative approach is the only way to create real change and must be based on good evidence of what works across the life-course. Acting as a hub the RGHI is convening the global hygiene community, enabling us to work together to deliver evidence-based policy change. Engagement with all levels of society is vital to change the status quo and provide women the support and freedom to manage their menstrual hygiene needs appropriately.”
In 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to make sanitary products free. England has also made period products available across all primary and secondary schools and a handful of US states have passed laws mandating free period products are provided in schools. France also joined the global drive to end ‘period poverty’ at the beginning of 2021 with New Zealand promising to do the same.
Dr. Sinclair continued: “These are not just economic decisions for high-income countries. Good government policies can normalise menstruation and menstrual hygiene across global society. Some countries are already on that journey, but many others have yet to start. This is essential to breaking down taboos and creating a generation that understands, accommodates and welcomes this normal part of life.”
Education is key, particularly in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) where cultural, social, and religious beliefs can further disadvantage menstruating women affecting the education of girls, their attendance at school and their intellectual and social development.
Poornima Prabhakaran, additional professor, head (environmental health) and deputy director, Centre for Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India said: “As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, let us remind ourselves of the critical need to mainstream awareness and sensitisation of menstrual hygiene management issues amongst both adolescent girls and boys. Socio-cultural and religious taboos in many parts of the world still exist causing stigma and reticence in discussing issues around menstruation. In LMICs in particular, and in rural areas of countries like India, adolescent girls and women often have limited access to sanitary napkins /menstrual absorbents and poor awareness of safe menstrual hygiene resulting in greater susceptibility to reproductive tract infections; sub-optimal infrastructural facilities in schools and workplaces with inadequate water supply and soap, and spaces for safe and secure changing and environmentally-friendly disposal of sanitary napkins often results in school dropout and absence, with long-term consequences for career and economic growth. The Indian Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation released the menstrual hygiene management framework in India in 2015 as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission guidelines (SBM-G) to support adolescent girls and women. An earlier Menstrual Hygiene Scheme by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2011 also aimed at promotion of menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls 10-19 years of age in rural areas. The reach and impact of these schemes must be evaluated and challenges in implementation must be addressed in a timely manner to protect our women and their health.”
Simon Sinclair concluded: “Poor awareness of positive hygiene practices, and the myths and misconceptions associated with menstrual health are adversely affecting women’s lives throughout the world. These issues contribute to work and school absence, negatively impacting women’s long-term life chances. Through better evidence, education and collaborative working we can change this, and transform the opportunities these women face, for the long term.”