Why celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day?
In 2014 the international community chose 28 May as an annual day dedicated to menstrual health and hygiene. The aim is to break the silence around this topic and shine a spotlight on it.
Originally, the day was used to lobby decision-makers to improve sanitary provisions in schools to ensure that periods would not disrupt girls’ education or prevent them from participating or continuing to attend school. Over time, 28 May has become an opportunity to tackle broader issues linked to menstrual health and hygiene.
Why 28 May ?
The choice of the 28th day of the month is a reference to the average length of a menstrual cycle. May is the fifth month of the year which is the number of days women and girls menstruate for on average.
What are the health risks?
When they have their periods people sometimes use methods that are unsuitable or are hazardous to their health (rags, leaves, newspaper, pieces of mattress padding or even mud). The lack of appropriate sanitary facilities also makes hygienic menstrual management more difficult.
There is significant risk of genitourinary infections (such as fungal infections, vaginosis or urinary infections) and these conditions are difficult to treat for the most vulnerable who have limited access to the healthcare system. Other conditions can be overlooked due to lack of knowledge on the part of healthcare workers, leading to anaemia, failure to treat toxic shock syndrome, endometriosis or pain more generally.
On the field
In 2019 our teams ran a pilot project in Côte d’Ivoire which distributed 44 menstrual cups to girls and young women aged 14-24. This intervention was part of a wider project to improve their sexual and reproductive rights and health and included discussion sessions on the menstrual cycle. Overall, 70% of users said they were satisfied with the cup and would use it in addition to or even instead of the pieces of cloth most of them had been using previously. However, problems with cleaning and sterilising the cups means a more in-depth study should be conducted
What is the link between periods and human rights?
Shining a spotlight on what is a natural phenomenon helps to combat the taboos and prohibitions, shame and stigmatisation which are associated with menstruation all over the world. Menstrual health and hygiene is an issue of fundamental human rights and dignity.
One in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during her menstrual cycle.
Defending these rights enables girls and women and transgender people to fully exercise their sexual and reproductive rights, as well as their rights to human dignity, health, water and sanitation, and even education. UNESCO estimates that one in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during her menstrual cycle (which equates to missing 20% of schooling every year).
How are periods an equality issue?
Difficulty accessing good quality period products and safe places to change them has an impact on many aspects of the lives of women and girls and prevents them from participating fully in certain areas of economic, social and family life. Missing school, being absent from work or having to leave the home when they have their periods are also obstacles to equality between women and men because it reinforces the view that women and girls have less claim to public spaces.
Furthermore, women and trans people are not equal in relation to menstrual hygiene management. Menstrual products are expensive and this exacerbates social inequalities.
What are the safety / protection issues around menstrual health and hygiene?
The taboos around periods and the lack of safe toilets mean that women often have to hide or go away to change or wash menstrual products, putting themselves at higher risk of violence.
In many parts of the world a girl’s first period is seen as a sign of maturity. Girls can then leave school, work, get married and have children, which exposes them to abuse, and sexual violence in particular. This comes at a key moment in the development of girls’ identity which affects their self-esteem, how they see their bodies and how they are seen by boys and men.
In a humanitarian context, in crisis and conflict settings, access to menstrual products and safe facilities is more difficult. In emergency situations periods are not yet considered as a dignity issue in the way other things are. For example, in refugee camps the proportion of toilets that are single-sex is very small. The issue of menstrual health is thus an issue of protection from all forms of violence.
What is period poverty?
According to UNFPA, period poverty is “the struggle many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products”. It also includes the financial burden of buying pain medication and spare underwear. Across the world, around 500 million women cannot afford to buy period products on a regular basis. In France this figure is between 1.5 and 2 million.
Period poverty covers a range of different situations and compounds the economic and social problems faced daily by the most vulnerable in society. Disabled people, prisoners, migrants, transgender people and sex workers all experience multiple obstacles in terms of menstrual hygiene management.
COVID AND MENSTRUAL HYGIENE: DELETERIOUS CONSEQUENCES
The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions have had an impact on menstrual health and hygiene. Travel restrictions, the closure of healthcare facilities and loss of income have all created additional difficulties in accessing menstrual hygiene products and information. Menstrual cycles have also been disrupted due to stress.
Crisis situations show universally and incontrovertibly that menstrual products should be regarded as essential items which should always be provided to ensure the health and dignity of everyone who menstruates.
MENSTRUAL HEALTH IN FRANCE
In Saint Denis, in France, MdM has been working since 2018 with the organisation Règles Elémentaires to provide menstrual products through the Healthcare Advice and Referral Centre (CASO). Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, these products have also been added to the hygiene kits distributed to people living in slum areas.
Let's act for mesntrual hygiene and health!
Health issues that relate specifically to the bodies of girls and women have traditionally been ignored by decision-makers, including those in the areas of education and medicine. This is why civil society is coming together for this day of action today, 28 May, and Médecins du Monde is promoting the UNFPA recommendations on the needs of people managing menstruation:
- Access to clean material to absorb or collect menstrual blood
- The possibility to change these materials in safety and privacy, and have a place to dispose of used menstrual supplies or to wash reusable supplies
- The ability to wash safely and privately with soap and water
- Access to basic education about the menstrual cycle and how to manage menstruation without discomfort or fear
- Access to health information and care if they experience menstruation-related disorders