Let’s Talk About Menstrual Health

By Gabrielle Fitzgerald, Founder and CEO of Panorama and Thorsten Kiefer, Founder and CEO of WASH United  

On any given day more than 800 million women and girls are menstruating, yet menstrual health and hygiene is a neglected health and development issue. Stigma, taboos, and ignorance around periods harm women and girls every day.

In many parts of the world, women and girls are considered dirty or impure during menstruation. They are restricted from daily activities such as eating certain foods, touching animals, going to school, or socializing with boys and men. In some cultures, burning a used pad symbolizes burning a baby. In extreme cases, women and girls are isolated to places like cow sheds during their period.

But menstrual health and hygiene is not just an issue in developing countries. While the concrete challenges might be different, menstruation is still met with silence, neglect, and stigma in countries like the United States, Germany, and Japan.

We are beginning to see some traction against the neglect of menstrual health and hygiene. A UN agency is hosting a convening on menstrual health for the first time. The United Nations Population Fund is bringing together youth activists, policymakers, experts, donors, and practitioners in Johannesburg on May 28 – Menstrual Hygiene Day — to drive action on this fundamental issue of gender equality.

As menstrual health and hygiene activism starts to ramp up, it is imperative for the global community to approach the issue holistically.

Current solutions primarily focus on providing access to safe and affordable products or materials, but products alone won’t solve the problem.

It is critical that discussion about menstruation be mainstreamed as a normal biological process. The period is a fundamental developmental milestone and vital health sign. Girls and women need information to understand and manage their period with confidence and dignity. We must also ensure they have access to a toilet or place to manage their period at home, work, school, or in transit.

Above all, we will only be able to make progress by taking on the stigma that comes with menstruation. We must arm pre-adolescent girls – and their key influencers including family, religious leaders, community health workers, and boys and men – with the knowledge they need to manage their periods comfortably, with confidence. It’s time to support the social and physical health of girls when they need it most.

If addressing menstrual health and hygiene is such a no-brainer, why is it still an outlier? Despite an emerging body of evidence and an increased commitment to gender equality, the global response has been slow. One reason is this issue falls through the cracks between programs such as health, education, gender, and water, sanitation and hygiene.

As a global community, it is our responsibility to invest in the research to understand the links between menstruation and social and physical health outcomes. In parallel, we must also advocate for unrepresented issues affecting the daily lives of women and girls. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, but should reinforce each other.

Global events that focus on women’s health like the World Health Assembly and Women Deliver should include discussions on menstrual health and hygiene. Development agencies, practitioners, and researchers should include it in strategies to meet gender, water and sanitation, and education-focused Sustainable Development Goals. Humanitarian response agencies can ensure that sanitary supplies and education modules are embedded in emergency response programming. Investing in the capacity of researchers in the Global South to better understand local taboos, stigma, and solutions should be prioritized. In the United States, we need to ensure that women and girls in under-resourced settings likes schools, prisons, and homeless shelters have access to sanitary products.

The rallying cry for this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day is #NoMoreLimits. It is high time that we step up our efforts to ensure that women and girls are no longer limited because of their periods.

Authored by Thorsten Kiefer and Gabrielle Fitzgerald. Thorsten Kiefer is founder and CEO of WASH United, a Berlin-based non-profit organization that works to end the global sanitation and hygiene crisis. Gabrielle Fitzgerald is founder and CEO of Panorama, a Seattle-based action tank.

Originally published in UN Dispatch on May 28, 2018.