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In May 2018, Essity, with inputs from UN partner WSSCC , published the latest edition of the Hygiene and Health Report titled “Personal Well-being – Key to Public Progress. The report, which has been published since 2008, aims to drive a global dialogue and actions on the important connection between hygiene, health and well-being.
Apart from insights from experts and case studies, the 2018 report contained a number of calls for action, directed at decision-makers within both the public and the private sector, to highlight opportunities to address challenges and accelerate progress for individuals as well as society. One year after the publication, we take a look at some inspiring examples of progress in this field, starting with women’s health.
The average woman menstruates approximately 3,000 days in her lifetime. This biological process occurs for half of the world’s population, yet stigma, myths and misinformation still prevail. In many places around the world, periods can cause women social and physical discomfort and even lead to their exclusion from education and work life. There are also significant inequities with regards to awareness, knowledge and safe access to menstrual hygiene. To achieve gender equality, it’s therefore essential that menstrual hygiene be taken into consideration in policies and development work.
One tool for making sure that the needs of all women and girls are taken into consideration is ensuring a human rights framework when assessing menstrual health practices. Women’s and girls’ ability to safely manage their menstrual health and hygiene is also closely linked to many other basic human rights principles such as non-discrimination, access to information and participation in public and professional life.
And while it has been part of the international development discourse for some time, the human rights perspective is now starting to make its impact on national policies as well. This past year has seen several inspiring examples of government action aimed at securing menstrual hygiene for all girls and women.
In October 2018, the Governments of Germany and Spain co-sponsored an updated resolution on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation, where Menstrual Hygiene was explicitly mentioned in the narrative. The resolution was passed at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In Kenya, the Government has been working on a draft Menstrual Hygiene Policy at the national level. This policy, when confirmed, will be the first stand-alone policy of its kind in the world. In South Africa in December 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a commitment towards menstrual health for girls in schools.
Menstrual health in educational institutions has also been the focus of other initiatives launched during the year. In August, the Scottish government pledged to prioritize this area and invest £5.2 million, in the US, the State of New York has passed legislation to secure access to menstrual health for all girls in grades 6 through 12.
And in March of this year, ahead of International Women’s Day, the UK Government launched a global campaign to support improved menstrual hygiene for all women. The campaign includes £2 million in funding to organizations that are already working on providing menstrual hygiene education and solutions for girls and women in the UK and elsewhere in the world.
It is positive to see the actions being taken by governments around the world to address and prioritize menstrual health issues. One major challenge in many parts of the world is the basic stigma surrounding menstruation as such. This challenge not only prevents public conversations about the topic but also prevents women from learning more about their menstruation and being able to tell natural symptoms from indications of more serious conditions.
There are many actors involved in trying to breaking these taboos and as a recent example Swedish start-up “Grace Health” have launched a period tracker that helps women in emerging markets gain better control of their menstrual and fertility cycle while increasing their knowledge about menstrual hygiene and reproductive health at the same time.
The app is a chatbot which actively reminds the user to provide information on menstruation, health and general well-being. But the user can also share information about their own menstruation and ask sensitive questions. This way, users can continuously improve their menstrual literacy. The service is launching in Ghana during 2019, but has its eyes set on the 1,2 Billion women living in low- and middle-income markets with access to mobile phones.
Another example of breaking taboos through education is “Vagina Varsity”, an online program launched in South Africa by the Essity brand Libresse. The program was developed together with gynecologists working in public hospitals providing expertise and explanations to women on everything they need to know about the vagina. Students signed up and, every day for a month, they received video links, educational facts, product information, weekly tests and more. The initiative sparked numerous conversations on TV chat shows, in the press and online throughout 2018.
The work to improve the menstrual hygiene, health and well-being of women all around the world, whether through education, technological innovations or policy regulations, starts with talking about it. When taboos are broken and stigma is removed, the needs of girls and women can be addressed openly and we can combine ideas of individuals, companies and policy makers in the progress towards greater equality. Through the work of many organizations, institutions and individuals, progress is being made towards breaking the silence on menstruation and actions are taken with implications for women’s health, education, livelihoods and well-being.
Virginia Kamowa, PhD, Senior Technical Expert Menstrual Hygiene Management, WSSCC, summarizes:
In many countries, both developed and developing, we’re seeing a movement for improved menstrual health and hygiene for all. At the policy level there has been an incredible shift in political will and some of the strongest voices have come from individuals (male and female) who are changing perspectives and advocating for change. Now is the time to work together for increased investment, better education and innovative solutions for menstruation. We all have a role to play.