Posted by: kris tay | March 9, 2013

Menstruation and the right to health

Jyoti Sanghera

The institutionalisation of stigma is when exclusion, otherness, ostracism, confinement or seclusion are normalised. 

Jyoti Sanghera, Chief of Human Rights and Economic and Social Issues, OHCHR.

Today, on International Women’s Day (and every other day, of course) 330 million girls and women are going through the natural, healthy process of menstruation.

Does it make you uncomfortable:
-To see it in the title of this blog post?
-To think or talk about it in a personal or professional context?
-To buy sanitary products or talk about hygiene facilities?
-For people to find out that you are menstruating, or to find out that someone else is?

Because of taboos on the discussion menstrual health and hygiene, across the world in almost every society, millions of girls and women cannot access safe sanitary products or means of disposal. They face stigmatisation and health issues leading to their absenteeism from school, inability to work or isolation from their families. Many may not even know what is happening to them.

Today I attended a high-level conference at the UN entitled ‘Celebrating Womanhood: Menstrual Hygiene Management’. In the NGO sector, while the right to health and the right to water received traction years ago as legitimate, measurable, core human rights, the right to menstrual health is only beginning to be discussed.

Why does this matter? Why should resources be dedicated to this topic? Isn’t menstrual health something women and communities are already “dealing with” in private and behind closed doors? I’ll give a few examples highlighted in the speeches today.

  • Girls without access to pads use makeshift cloth or paper pads which leak. Due to concerns about others staining, odour and disposal, these girls miss 6 days of school every term rather than risk attending.
  • Women working in clothing factories use scraps of dyed, unwashed cloth as makeshift tampons. UTIs and other infections result.
  • Menstruation may have connotations that a girl or woman is impure and so banned from praying or places of worship, from preparing food or eating certain foods and collecting water, or from coming into contact with male family members. She, as a result, may feel ashamed and unclean and may suffer health consequences.
  • Menstrual health is not something that is discussed in a community. As a result when a girl first experiences her period, she doesn’t know what’s happening, or is told that she is sick because of the taboo on discussing the biological process.
  • A woman doesn’t want to consult a medical professional about menstrual problems because they’re not perceived as medical problems/too private/taboo.

Some exciting intiatives are already rolling out. Programs in Nepal, India, Cambodia, Ghana, Sudan among others are reaching women and girls, as well as men and boys, to improve access to sanitary items and means of disposal, to remove the taboo on menstruation that impacts on the realisation of other human rights such as receiving an education, working, and from participation in community life.

I’m discussing this topic in this particular forum for a reason.

Because if not here, then where?

If menstrual health remains, in the human rights community, a deeply private topic that cannot be discussed, then how will resources ever be allocated to it, education be developed, health issues addressed?

And, if menstruation remains a topic that can only be mentioned in an academic sense, but remains taboo within our own society, then how can we expect other communities to have open, candid conversations about this area women’s health?

Other areas of human rights – sexuality and gender identity, disability rights, female genital mutilation, rape and sexual assault, and not that long ago the rights of black and ethnic minorities, were shrouded in stigma and discussed only behind closed doors. Today, these topics comprise a key component of a vibrant human rights framework, as they should. Menstrual health deserves a similar place.

I’ll close this post with a photo. Yes, that is a mooncup. And behind it, the representatives of the UN and NGOs who held, squished, and discussed it.

UN panel and mooncup

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