What is Menstrual Hygiene Day & How We Can Help?

World Menstrual Hygiene Day

The month of May (5th month representing 5 days of period) hosts the World Menstrual Hygiene Day on the 28th (to denote 28 days of the average menstrual cycle) every year. It was the German-based NGO, WASH United, that started this in 2014 to break taboos that surround menstruation. It aims to raise awareness about the significance of good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) around the world.

According to UNICEF, MHM requires, “Women and adolescent girls to use a clean material to absorb or collect menstrual blood, and this material can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of menstruation. MHM also includes using soap and water for washing the body as required; and having access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materials."

Menstrual Health Management

Having a designated day to discuss menstrual hygiene provides an opportunity to highlight the positive solutions to the challenges and to vigorously advocate the inclusion of international, national, as well as local policies that focus on MHM. 

MHM can be particularly challenging for girls and women in developing countries. In a 2014 study conducted in India, the researchers found that as many as 42 per cent of women who participated in the study did not know about sanitary pads or from where in their anatomy menstruation originated. The researchers reveal that most of the women reported feelings of fear or worry on first menstruation.

Dasra’s report, SPOT ON!, highlights how MHM in India is made more complex by three dimensions: Lack of Awareness, Lack of Material, and finally, Lack of Facilities. According to it, “71 per cent of girls report having no knowledge of menstruation before their first period”, which only goes to show how ingrained the culture of silence around menstruation is in the country.

The taboos and myths surrounding menstruation make the experience even more terrifying. These superstitions often restrict the women from sleeping in the same house, entering the prayer room or any other sacred space, touching food, or even interacting with men when on their period. The lack of understanding or awareness of menstrual hygiene on the part of mothers makes the situation worse. There is neither awareness regarding the necessity of good nutrition nor the ability to identify signs of anemia or other period-related disorders. In fact, according to Dasra’s report, 70 per cent of mothers consider period blood “dirty”, perpetuating a culture of shame around a natural process.

To illuminate the lack of menstrual management material, the report shows how women in rural India, even today, rely on home-based unsanitary materials because they are readily available. These include, old fabric, rags, sand, ash, and hay. Several studies indicate that poor women actually tend to use the dirtiest piece of cloth available, because to them menstruation is synonymous with dirt. This not only increases their vulnerability to vaginal and other menstruation-related infections, but also restricts them from going about their daily chores.

Still from film - Period. End of Sentence

Still from film - Period. End of Sentence

Period. End of Sentence, a film on menstruation, set in rural India, recently won the Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category. As part of The Pad Project started by students at the Oakwood School, LA, along with their teacher, Melissa Berton, this movie aims to end menstruation taboo. Menstrual hygiene can only be achieved when there is access to menstrual products, and as Rayka Zehtabchi, the Director of the movie, informs, 

“There’s such little access, especially in rural areas we were, and there was maybe one shop right outside the village that had maybe a couple packs of pads for sale. When there's very little access, there's very little attention paid to feminine hygiene, and there's less and less conversation around it. There's all these kind of myths around what menstruation is; the common misconception, especially from the men, is that it’s an illness or it’s impure.”

Only 2-3% of women living in rural India use disposable sanitary napkins. Sanitary pads pose a different kind of problem that cannot be ignored. These are hazardous to the environment owing to their non-biodegradable nature.

Menstrual Health Management MHM

The efforts of Boondh, an organization that works at the intersection of menstrual health and environment sustainability, in India, is worth mentioning. They design and deliver menstrual interventions and offer affordable reusable period products in economically disadvantaged communities across India. In the course of last three years, they have engaged with 16000+ menstruators, helped transition 8000+ people move to sustainable products and eliminated 960,000 kg of plastic ending up in landfills.

To celebrate World Menstrual Hygiene Day, this year, they are exhibiting The Crimson Wave, India's first travelling art exhibition about menstruation & with menstrual blood (Erythrean series) having artwork from artists across the world. In the past, TCW has been displayed to Bangalore, Chennai and Goa.

The third dimension that makes MHM in India complicated is the lack of facilities. Spot On! reports, “63 million adolescent girls in India live in homes without toilets. Two out of five schools do not have separate toilets for girls. Limited access to safe, functional toilets at home forces girls to manage their periods in ways that compromise their safety and health. With no toilets in school, they simply do not attend.” The lack of proper MHM facilities is one of the major reasons why nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually.

Menstruation is a natural biological process. It is a sign of a healthy transition into adulthood. However, instead of celebrating the same, millions of girls are being weighed down and their growth is being hindered. A recent World Bank Group (WBG) study examining the complex relationship between water and gender, ‘The Rising Tide: A New Look at Water and Gender’, illustrates how a disregard of menstrual hygiene needs serves to entrench the lower status of women and girls. A flagship sanitation operation supported by the WBG in India, the Swachh Bharat Mission, includes measures on constructing facilities that cater to the needs of menstruating girls, and on raising awareness among the community, including among boys and men, with the objective of breaking the taboo around menstruation. MHM has, over the last decade, garnered the attention it deserves. Now, however, it is critical to push the agenda to the next level.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

As per the Spot On report, here are a few things we can do to help the MHM movement achieve its goals –

1.     Educate Mothers - Ultimately mothers are the best way to pass down the important information about menstrual health to their daughters, so this is of utmost importance. If you see a naive mother or a would be mother who you think is unaware of the details, do your bit and pass on the information. Explain to them how to keep themselves and their daughters safe and the dangers that they pose if they don’t do so.

2.     Educate Girls - If a girl child fails to gain the necessary information on menstrual hygiene at her home, it is important they receive it from their second best source of knowledge - school. School teachers should focus on explaining young girls about menstruation well before they get their first period to avoid confusion and taboo.

3.     Talk about it openly - Periods have been a taboo for way too long and it’s high time we start talking about it for what they are - a normal bodily function. Stop by using terms like “down”, “those days”, “girl problem” and such and just call them PERIODS!

4.     Invest/Donate - There are many organisations doing brilliant work in the menstrual management field. When you come across such a startup that is looking for help to grow, do your bit however you can. Finance them if you can or else spread the word and help them gain recognition. Let’s cheer them on for the brilliant job that they are doing!


IN SERVICE OF THE SISTERHOOD, BY RIYA ROY