Feature: menstruation matters to everyone, everywhere
Menstrual Hygiene Day keynote address: Dr Dani Barrington, 28 May 2016
The first time I really understood what it was like to be a woman in another part of the world I was in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was my very first day, in my very first community, as an Engineers Without Borders Field Volunteer in Nepal.
I sat in a woman’s house drinking tea whilst she told me that her daughter, who was around my age, was very sick.
It sounded like amoebic dysentery from poor water and sanitation. My colleague and I discreetly handed over some of my travel medication and wished her good luck.
That evening my colleague and I were called back to the house. The girl had taken a turn for the worse. By now the entire village was crowded around the doorway.
Inside the girl was barely conscious, just awake enough to try to fight the traditional medicine men holding her down whilst they tried to poor tikka powder dissolved in water down her throat.
I honestly thought she was going to die.
One by one each of us from the village was ushered inside to see her up close – to this day I don’t really understand why. I don’t have any medical training, but I do have a nurse for a mother. Even I could see that she had a raging fever. I offered Panadol as the only thing I had on me.
I was told no, the traditional medicine men would take care of her.
Now, luckily for the girl, she actually did get better over the next few days. Whether it was the Western medication or traditional medicine we’ll never know. But that experience has stuck with me since.
THAT is the reality of being a poor woman without safe water and sanitation.
Menstrual hygiene management globally
Sanitation, and more specifically, menstruation, is a universal connector of women and men. But it is also an intricate issue of physical health, cultural norms and intimate relationships. It is experienced differently across the globe.
There are many places around the world where girls don’t actually know what a period is until they begin menstruating. Can you imagine the horror of finding blood in your underwear and not knowing that it is entirely natural?
Statistics around menstrual hygiene management are hard to come by. It is not a topic that has received much research funding in the past. But we do know that in some countries women and girls do not attend school or work when they have their periods.
They are probably not home on the couch with chocolate and a heat pack like I am when I have my period.
There are many women and girls in the world who simply cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. They make do with whatever they have around – old newspapers, sand – even animal fur.
We don’t have a lot of data, but there have been a few studies conducted in the last decade. For example, conservative estimates are that 13 million Indian women use unhygienic materials to absorb period blood.
Even where women do have access to reusable rags as makeshift pads, cleaning them can be a problem. In cultures where it is taboo to wash and dry them in public we see women and girls often wash the rags and then hide them under the mattress to dry – creating a new problem of mouldy and vermin infested pads which can cause infections.
And even if a woman or girl has access to menstrual hygiene products, she still needs somewhere to go to manage her period. There are too many schools around the globe which have no toilet facilities. Others have them, but they are kept locked by staff so that the students won’t “dirty” them for when the dignitaries and donors visit. Others still don’t have running water for handwashing, or lack privacy from boys and other girls – some don’t even have doors.
When girls don’t attend school, they miss out on opportunities. We know that school absenteeism contributes to early marriages and lower incomes, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty for her family.
What about the case of women and girls who have been victims of female genital mutilation? There are three different classes of FGM. In the first, the clitoris is removed. In the second, the labia are also removed. In the third, a girl’s urogenital region is sewn shut, leaving only a small hole for her to urinate and menstruate through.
I imagine these girls’ experiences of periods differs to mine.
Menstrual hygiene management in Australia
And of course, let’s not forget the issues surrounding menstrual hygiene in our own country. Homelessness Australia estimates that on any given night, 1 in 200 Australians are homeless, and that 44% of these people are female. On a daily basis there are tens of thousands of menstruating women on the streets, in their car, or on the couch of a friend or stranger.
Moreover, as these statistics only indicate binary genders, this overlooks the LGBTI population, which comprises a disproportionate section of the homeless population. It’s fair to assume that there are also transgender men—and those who don’t identify as a particular gender—also facing this issue. A colleague pointed out to me another issue here – how do you manage your period if you identify as a man, use the male bathroom, but have nowhere to dispose of sanitary items in the stalls?
These are just some of the reasons why Menstrual Hygiene Day was initiated in 2014. We aim to tackle this taboo through advocacy and action. We are a global coalition of government agencies, not-for-profits, the private sector, and individuals like you and I.
Being able to menstruate hygienically, and with dignity, is a Universal Human Right. The right to an adequate standard of living was declared in 1948, and menstrual hygiene management sits implicitly within this right. In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly went a step further and announced sanitation as a standalone human right.
We have a hashtag for menstrual hygiene day, #MenstruationMatters. I’ve been watching it over the past month and a lot of social media trolls – both male and female - seem worried that our mission is for every woman to announce where she is on her cycle at every staff meeting and how often she has had to change her tampon that day.
But that is not the point. Menstrual Hygiene Day is important because every woman and girl, everywhere in the world, should understand the wonder of her body, and be able to manage her period with hygiene and dignity.
Because menstruation always has, and always will, matter to everyone, everywhere.
Dr Dani Barrington
Research Fellow (Monash University/International WaterCentre)
P: +61 7 3014 0200