Menstruation — a human rights issue
The most important and most ignored facet of menstruation
There is no scientific research to support this statement, but I believe that every woman remembers the first time she menstruated. It is something that after a while becomes very natural and routine in our lives, but most of us probably panicked the first time they saw that amount of blood coming out of there. Menstruation is still taboo today and although we have countries with nuclear arsenals capable of destroying the planet, we also have countries where women do not have access to something as simple as an absorbent.
I must admit that I have never been so concerned with this issue (which is kind of embarrassing because it makes me reflect on the type of feminism I believe and preach) but I was confronted with the subject when I watched a wonderful documentary, “Period. End of sentence”, Oscar 2019 winner in the category Best Short Documentary, where they talk about how the lives of women in a small community in India are changing with the arrival of pads made manually by the residents of the community. Watching the movie made me extremely uncomfortable because I realized that there I was, on the sofa in my house, watching a documentary on a streaming service, at a top of a privilege that is to have access to culture, as women and girls in various places around the world do not have access to basic hygiene products such as sanitary pads!
So I enter the not-so-talked-about world of menstruation, leaving aside all the facets that this subject has and entering into one of the aspects that go unnoticed even by the most keen eyes: how menstruation is a matter of human rights.
First, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, made by the UN, one of the several rights that anyone has is access to quality health, education, and decent work. And it is only when we speak of third world countries where access to these resources is notoriously precarious, that we begin to understand how things are related. My purpose here is not to delve into the global geopolitics and analyze the different governments and historical contexts of each country, my point here is to focus on the fact that most of the countries that today form our beloved Planet Earth have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where it clearly states that these governments are responsible for fighting for their population to have access to education, quality health and decent work. Despite being third world countries that give us a clearer view on this subject, there is no need to take a country of absolute poverty to exemplify, I can talk, for example, about the United Kingdom, where in 2017 more than 137,700 girls lost school days because they were unable to afford the costs of their pads.
Have you started to understand how these issues are connected?
Without the financial conditions to buy packs of tampons these girls are forced not to go to school to avoid the constraints of having their clothes soiled with blood in front of dozens of people, with this their school performance is affected, and many of them over time end up dropping out of school and submitting to jobs in precarious conditions to support themselves. It’s a kind of a butterfly effect that ends every year with the prospect of a better life for thousands of girls around the world.
The human right to water says that everyone should have sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically, and economically accessible access to water for personal and domestic use.
The human right of access to sanitation says that everyone must have physical and accessible access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, healthy, hygienic, socially, and culturally acceptable, that provides privacy and guarantees dignity.
Well, if you are a person who menstruates, you should know how important personal hygiene is during this period, not only inside the house, but mainly outside of it, which is where we spend most of our days. Now imagine that in your school and/or work there are no adequate facilities for maintaining this hygiene; that these facilities are precarious, that there is no security, privacy, comfort, that there is no water. Uncomfortable, isn’t it? For that is the reality of thousands, if not millions, of girls and women around the world.
In a more formal way, we define these conditions as ‘hostile school environment for girls’ ¹, that is:
- School environments where there is a complete lack of latrines (beautiful word for toilets) or when the latrines are inadequate in number, quality, design, security and privacy, including the locks inside the doors;
- School environments where insufficient (drinking) water is available near the latrines, and / or water is not available within the latrines to provide privacy for washing hands and washing stains on school uniforms or other clothing;
- School environments that lack adequate mechanisms for the disposal of used sanitary materials, including trash bins inside latrine stalls, and a place to burn used sanitary materials at the end of each school day, such as an incinerator or pit.
As we can see, a hostile school environment is based on an environment where water and sanitation issues are precarious or non-existent, and it is clear that these environments affect everyone, but it is necessary to analyze how these environments mainly affect girls and female teachers in these schools. In an environment where it is not possible to maintain personal hygiene, girls will be discouraged from going to school when they are in their menstrual period, consequently this will affect their school performance. In addition to affecting the education these girls receive, it is also necessary to look at the issue of basic sanitation and social health. In most places where schools do not have adequate facilities for personal hygiene, this scenario is repeated at home; where the disposal of hygienic materials is done inappropriately, often thrown in the open, in valleys and streams, where contamination and spread of diseases are more propitious.
If we stop to think, health and education are two issues that go hand in hand. In addition to access to quality health services and medicines, it is necessary for individuals to receive basic education on these issues at school, to prolong well-being. According to the UN, the definition of the right to health also includes access to educational information related to sexual and reproductive health, this in a nutshell means: sex education; that contrary to what many think it is not teaching children to be promiscuous, but rather, to know their own body, learn about natural biological processes that occur, including menstruation, disprove myths that are perpetually perpetuated from generation to generation, prevent pregnancy and STD dissemination, among many other things.
Certainly, most girls today did not know what menstruation was before it happened to them, I myself remember that I freaked out when it happened to me for the first time, thinking that I was dying from the amount of blood coming out of me; nowadays it’s a story that makes me laugh, but looking at it in a more serious way, it’s not funny. Thousands of girls go through the same situation that could easily be avoided if the matter would be addressed in school early, and probably most of these girls will spend years with only the information they sought with their mothers and grandmothers, who are shrouded in myths and prejudices perpetuated by time and ignorance.
Myths are extremely harmful to the development of young girls because most of them are harmful, and in many communities these beliefs are taken to extremes. For example, in Uganda, where in some communities women and girls are prevented from interacting with men when menstruating as menstruation blood is considered “dirty”. They are also prohibited from cooking or performing any household chores as they believe that people who eat meals or use the home will be “cursed”. These myths seem absurd to me, but you see, I had the opportunity to continue my studies since I was young, I finished my high school, now I am in University, I have access to all kinds of information, so I know there is nothing wrong with menstruating and that women in their menstrual period don’t curse anything, but looking at a community in Uganda, a poor country, where education rates are low, and most of the information about the menstrual cycle, that remember is still a taboo in first world countries, are passed on from generation to generation, carrying beliefs from decades ago, it does not seem so absurd. In this way, these girl’s self-esteem is affected as they are forced to believe that there is something wrong with them.
In many countries, teachers never talk in the classroom about menstruation or any other topic related to women’s physiology. This occurs for several reasons, the biggest one being the fact that most teachers in these places are men and they feel uncomfortable in addressing this issue. Perhaps the second biggest reason is that schools cut this topic off on biology’s classes schedules. Education is not just a right, it is a form of empowerment, especially for women. It has been proven that girls who stay in school longer are associated with a reduction in maternal mortality, increased rates of contraception and child vaccination, decreased rates of HIV and economic benefits.
As mentioned earlier, the lack of adequate sanitation has direct consequences for the education of girls around the world. Perhaps this is the main consequence in the education of these young women, but in many societies when a girl menstruates for the first time it is common to associate her with sexual maturity which often leads to forced marriages with men generally much older, which also lead to many of them dropping out of school. Even though these beliefs are rooted in many communities, the government needs to be aware that this type of behavior affects not only the personal lives of these girls, but society as a whole; of course, theory is much easier than practice, but if nothing is done, nothing will be changed.
I could go into detail on the issue of work, gender equality, and other issues, but then I would start repeating myself because when we stop to analyze these aspects we see that they all revolve around the same issue: the lack of access to sanitation, personal hygiene materials, quality education and information harms all spheres of life for girls and women, directly interfering with the human rights that these girls and women have, especially the right to education, which is the basis of everything.
“Education as a fundamental human right is essential for the exercise of all other human rights. Education promotes individual freedom and contributes to the child’s broader empowerment, well-being, and development, ensuring that they are equipped to understand and claim your rights throughout life. “ — United Nations, Brazilian office.
An alternative to one of the essential personal care products for women is the low-cost absorbent, as in many poor countries the daily income of household providers is less than the prices of packets of absorbents, and the cost of transportation is also lower because these pads are made in the communities themselves; in addition to the economic perspective, it also has environmental advantages as these absorbents are made from biodegradable materials which, when discarded in nature, are decomposed more quickly. However, it is still an impediment to make these ideas reach the places in need, it is necessary that people with the capacity to teach in a clear and cohesive way go to these communities, there is a need for material to produce and people really engaged for this to happen; and above all, it is necessary for the government to provide the support that these girls and women need, for it to invest more in the health, education and support of its citizens, only then is a prospect of improvement possible.
I conclude by pointing out that even if we cannot break millennial taboos with just a few words or with some protest, small actions in our day-to-day lives do make a difference, we must help daily to break the little taboos about menstruation, whether talking more about the subject, educating a girl, talking to male colleagues, supporting campaigns on the subject on the internet/real life, etc., any action, no matter how small, makes a difference. It is with small steps that we conquer the world.
May 28th is Personal Hygiene Day, learn more about it on the page: MHDay.
¹ Definition based on several scientific articles on the subject, but mainly this one.