It probably goes without saying that periods are difficult to manage. They are painful, expensive, and often quite problematic for people who experience them. We use resources such as pads, tampons, pain relievers, and bathrooms in an effort to manage menstruation. According to the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is when people with periods are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean. For those of us who do have access to what we need to manage menstruation, it seems that we often take these things for granted. But what if someone doesn’t have these resources within reach? The bottom line is that a lack in opportunity to practice proper menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights due to its negative impact on mental and physical health, access to education, and gender equality.
What Is the Problem?
The aspect of this issue that might be the easiest to recognize is the inaccessibility of products like sanitary pads and tampons. One study in Kaduna State, Nigeria reported that only 37% of women in their sample had all the products needed for proper menstruation management. In Uganda, 35% of women reported the same thing. This can partly be attributed to financial issues and the frequency at which the products must be purchased. Some products, such as menstrual cups or washable pads, can be washed and reused over an extended period of time, making them cheaper in the long run. However, they are initially far more expensive than the disposable options. They are simply outside of the budget for many people. Even when someone can afford to pay for the reusable materials, finding somewhere to purchase them may be a problem.
Issues of accessibility do not end with menstrual hygiene products. In many countries, schools lack proper sanitation facilities, like bathrooms, which are vital to being able to safely and comfortably replace and dispose of used menstrual products. This is seen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there is an average of 1.2 “toilets” per primary school. These “toilets” are actually pit latrines. They are not usually kept in good condition and rarely have sufficient waste disposal options. In situations like this, there is little to no access to a truly safe and private place to change menstrual materials.
Exacerbating this issue are the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Around the world, girls are taught from a young age that having a period is something to hide and to be embarrassed of. In many countries, girls are even considered to be “dirty” when on their period. This can be seen in western Nepal, where there is a tradition called “chaupadi” which requires that girls and women stay outside throughout menstruation. If they enter a home, it is believed that all of the people and animals of the household will fall ill. This perspective puts both their mental and physical health at risk. Menstruation is frequently viewed as a taboo subject, so many girls are not taught anything about it before their first period. Even after they begin to experience menstruation, they do not have access to much knowledge of why it happens or what good menstrual hygiene management is.
It is also important to recognize the relationship between menstrual hygiene management and the transgender community. Menstruation is typically referred to as a strictly feminine issue, but that is simply not the case. Many transgender men and non-binary individuals experience periods, and they should be included in the conversation about menstruation. By failing to recognize their connection to menstruation, we fail to recognize the validity of their experiences and identities. This failure is a problem within itself, but it can also have repercussions on the mental health of transgender and non-binary individuals and their ability to access sanitary materials and bathrooms for menstrual hygiene management. We need to actively work towards being more inclusive with the language we use when discussion periods and related topics. This involves choosing gender neutral terms over gendered terms, such as choosing to say “menstrual hygiene products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”.
Why Does It Matter?
According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of themselves. When you are told that one of the basic biological processes that you experience and cannot control is shameful, it has the potential to lower the value that you see in yourself. Combined with the common lack in understanding of menstruation, this can lead to significant amounts of fear and confusion and have a considerable negative impact on mental health. Article 26 dictates that everyone has a right to education. Without access to clean menstrual management products or places to change and dispose of used ones, many girls around the world miss school during menstruation to try to keep it hidden. Some girls do not even have the option to go to school during that time. This creates a disparity between the educational and career opportunities of men and women, violating Article 2 of the declaration, which says that everyone is entitled to their rights without discrimination based on distinctions like one’s sex. It is unacceptable to allow limitations to be placed on individuals’ access to their human rights based on something that is uncontrollable. In order for things to change, individuals must take action.
What Can We Do?
Part of the reason why access to menstrual management products is such a difficult issue to deal with is that the majority of people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in the United States, where we generally have access to education about the most basic aspects of menstruation and know that it is normal and healthy, there seems to be some sort of collective, irrational fear surrounding the topic. Periods have a direct impact on half of the world’s population and an indirect impact on all of the population. We cannot continue trying to pretend that the obstructions of human rights that are caused by poor menstrual hygiene management do not exist. Conversations about menstruation might be uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary. uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary.
Many organizations have begun working towards improving MHM worldwide. AFRIpads, for example, works to provide menstrual kits with reusable sanitary pads and storage bags to women and girls throughout Africa, while creating job opportunities within the organization for women in Uganda. They also collaborate with Lunapads in a program called One4Her. For each eligible product that is purchased from Lunapads, an AFRIpad is donated to a student in need. On UAB’s campus, we have access to a chapter of Period: The Menstrual Movement, an organization that is dedicated to improving access to menstrual hygiene products for homeless women in the United States. If you are interested in taking action, the group is currently hosting a donation drive for pads and tampons through October 31. You can find donation boxes by the elevators in any of the residence halls. They are also hosting a Period Packaging event at the Spencer’s Honors House from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on November 1, where people will come together and pack menstrual hygiene products in kits to be given to those in need. Additionally, the Blazer Kitchen is hosting a toiletry drive through October 30, to which you can donate menstrual hygiene products, as well as many other non-perishable items.
If you lack the resources to financially support the improvement of MHM, do not be afraid to speak up and get involved in the conversation. Be a part of spreading awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding periods.