Millions of women and girls today lack the facilities, materials and information to manage the simple but vital biological acts of defecation and, especially, menstruation. In much of the world, menstruation means stigma, taboo and shame, keeping women from work and girls from school. This stigma, taboo and shame deny not only health and education; it denies dignity. There is good news: access to sanitation, hygiene and knowledge are proven drivers of life-long empowerment for adolescent girls. Focusing on real-life experiences and the latest evidence, the session will boast a dynamic, change-making dialogue between development partners, government representatives, women champions and academia.
- Improved hygiene is key to women’s empowerment.
- Menstrual bleedings are a particular challenge where sanitation is lacking.
- Women should be able to make an informed choice on how to handle their personal hygiene.
- Breaking the taboos regarding menstruation would significantly improve women’s health and enable full participation in society and the workplace.
Insufficient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is a major obstacle to women’s health worldwide. For women to have a genuine choice in how to handle their personal hygiene and their menstrual cycle there must be an offer of sanitary products available.
In many low-income countries, that is a real challenge – whether it is for economic reasons or because of a cultural bias that restricts the choice of products. However, so-called period poverty is not only a problem in developing countries; statistics show that young women and teenage girls in European countries are sometimes faced with not having enough money to buy the supplies of their choice.
In rural areas in India, for example, women use whatever material is available for absorption, even dried leaves, ashes or sand, partly because industrially produced sanitary products are unaffordable on a regular basis. Even the most basic protection, such as towels held together by rubber straps, can alleviate the situation. The lack of hygiene is directly linked to genital infections and a major cause of cervical cancer, which is exceptionally high in countries lacking basic sanitation.
Any change requires a focus on solutions and tackling discrimination; only by providing women with information of their biological cycles and their own bodies can they choose for themselves.
In Sweden, videos are used to demonstrate the changes to a woman’s body during menstruation, but period blood is still much of a taboo even in northern Europe. Sanitary products should be considered essential commodities and should not be taxed. In India, campaigners have been advocating for an abolition of VAT on sanitary pads; “no tax on blood” is a thought-provoking slogan that campaigners use to highlight the fact that women should not be taxed for the most basic necessities.
There is a stigma to bodily functions and fluids that restrict women from going about their daily lives. In some traditional communities, women are often excluded from the community for the time of their bleeding. Even in today’s world, a menstrual bleeding may be perceived as a limitation in the workplace with women often forced to take days off for the duration of their period, and girls lagging behind in school if they are not able to attend due to a lack of sanitary facilities.
Any effort to provide girls with information on healthcare must take into account cultural sensitivities regarding physiological functions and genuinely contribute to young women’s personal development by reinforcing them as actors that choose how to handle their own menstruation.
Better sanitation takes big investments. Improved hygiene is not only about hand-washing. Personal and menstrual hygiene is of utmost importance to women’s health and social integration. Improved water sanitation worldwide is key to women’s empowerment.