Educating Communities on the Importance of Menstrual Hygiene

This blog post was written by Lanice Williams, Policy Associate, Global Health Council. 

Girls at Kula Amuka Primary School in Anaka, Uganda, hold up sanitary pads that will help them stay in school. © 2012 Caroline Nguyen/GLOBEMED AT UCLA, Courtesy of Photoshare

Have you ever imagined not having access to a toilet or running water during your period? Or not having access to sanitary menstrual items? Or how to deal with the feelings of shame, embarrassment, or isolation due to your period? These are situations that many of us do not think about, but they are the reality for many women and girls living in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

On any given day, more than 800 million women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 are menstruating anywhere from two to seven days. While menstruation is a normal and integral part of life, in many regions of the world menstruating women and girls are often viewed as “impure” and “contaminated.” Many of the views that individuals, including men and boys, have about menstruation are due to lack of knowledge on menstruation, cultural practices, religious beliefs, and social myths about interacting with women during their period.  This is especially common in rural areas where women are prohibited from touching food that others may eat, isolated from their family home, and not allowed to attend school due to the shame associated with their menstruation.  In addition to the negative cultural attitudes and taboos, there are additional challenges associated with menstruation ranging from personal management of periods to issues such as reproductive and sexual health and gender-based violence, which affect girls and women and their roles in their communities.

A number of organizations, governments, and individuals are addressing the issues related to menstrual health by mobilizing others to get involved, breaking practices that at times violate the rights of women, and ensuring that more awareness and education are provided on menstruation.

One country that has deep cultural taboos around menstrual hygiene is Nepal. In the far western region of the country, the harmful tradition of “chhaupadi” — when menstruating women and girls are isolated into separate huts or cowsheds – is practiced. This practice is harmful because many women and girls are denied nutritious food, prevented from bathing and accessing clean water sources used by villagers, and vulnerable to the heightened risk of sexual assault. Although the Nepal Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that chhaupadi was illegal, there are some remote districts in the country where the ruling is rarely enforced. However, several organizations are working within rural communities in Nepal to ensure that this practice is fully abolished.

One such organization is Restless Development Nepal, who, along with its partners KIRDARC and PEACEWIN, addresses discrimination against menstruating females by raising awareness among community leaders, men, and boys. Through the organization’s programmatic approach designed to reduce the prevalence of chhaupadi and provide social support and education to women during their menstruation, employees have trained over 130 peer educators, reduced the prevalence of women sleeping in chhaupadi huts from 20 percent to 5 percent, and provided educational activities to over 20,000 women and girls as well as 15,000 boys and men.

Other organizations such as Plan International, AFRIpads, and Days for Girls work in various countries, such as Uganda and India, to ensure that effective menstrual hygiene management includes a comprehensive approach of addressing women’s immediate needs of sanitary products and menstrual health-appropriate sanitation and hygiene facilities. These approaches in turn lead to women managing their menstrual health free of shame and guilt.

As a community we must ensure that menstrual hygiene management and education are incorporated more into water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), education and sexual and reproductive health programs in LMICs. Doing so allows women and girls to become more confident in managing their menstrual hygiene; helps them stay in school to further their education and economic trajectory in society; and allows them to have a future free from discrimination.

While Menstrual Hygiene Day is recognized each year on May 28, it should not only be limited to this day. We must ensure that education about menstruation and the removal of the stigma around menstruation continues to occur around the world daily. To learn more, join the conversation on Twitter using #MenstruationMatters.