*Blog post and photographs contributed by Sydney Amoakoh.
New York, 18 March 2019 | Experts representing UN organizations, academia and civil society came together today at the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in an all-female panel on “Access to Menstrual Health as a Public Service: The Lived Experiences of Women and Girls.” The event was dedicated to elevating menstrual health as a cross-cutting rights issue that warrants increased attention in global policies and in the agreed conclusions of this year’s CSW. As menstrual health is emerging as a central theme of human rights and development, the panel stressed the importance of looking at the many menstruating women and girls who belong to marginalized groups, and their lived experiences with menstruation both in and outside the home.
By reflecting on their work in regards to menstrual health, each speaker contributed to the growing discourse and evidence recognizing menstruation’s relevance to the human rights to education, work, health and participation in public life without discrimination, among others. On the whole, their insights depict the inspiring trajectory of menstruation as an increasingly prioritized issue across different sectors, and next steps that global communities can take to ensure this trend continues.
Ms. Waltrand Dahs, Head of Division at Germany’s Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, reflected on the rise of menstruation’s profile at the UN within the past year. She commended the roles that Spain and Germany have played in elevating menstrual health at the Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UNGA Third Committee since 2008. She particularly noted their efforts to add language on menstruation to the HRC resolution on the rights to water and sanitation, namely language which calls on States to address menstrual stigma and garner social change.
Dr. Lauren Houghton, Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, gave insight on exactly how States and other actors can go about achieving that change through the social normalization of menstruation. She noted that such normalization is already starting to emerge, as, “menstruation is finally capturing the attention of policy makers, researchers, journalists, social entrepreneurs, and women and girls themselves”.
From the period emoji, to national programs on menstrual health and policies to de-tax menstrual products, to the appearance of menstrual apps, and teenage girls coding their own period-themed video games like Tampon Run – “menstruation is having its moment”. Though this progress is inspiring, Dr. Houghton cautioned that these developments do not inherently combat stigma and the root causes of barriers to adequate and equitable menstrual health.
As part of the Working Group on Gender Justice and Menstrual Health at Columbia University, Dr. Houghton and her colleagues have identified main risks menstrual advocates should aim to avoid in progressing the issue, including: viewing products as “quick fixes” to more complex menstrual health issues, rushing into ill-conceived policies that are not evidence-based, sensationalizing and demonizing menstruators’ cultural beliefs and practices, further dividing the global North and South, and further marginalizing vulnerable groups.
In attestation to this last point, Amariante Mohedano, Director of Social Services at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, shared the personal stories of women who seek the services of her New York-based organization. Many women cannot afford products or access to appropriate spaces to clean or change themselves, and must resort to compromising their wellbeing to cope. One woman reported to Ms. Mohedano that sleep deprivation allows her to delay, or completely miss, her period, so, “she tries not to sleep and does certain things she believes will alter her body, because she says that during those three or four days when she’s menstruating is when she feels the most vulnerable”.
Ms. Mohedano also relayed these women’s opinions on what New York and other cities could do to help homeless menstruators – acknowledging that women themselves should play a central role in shaping such initiatives. They expressed needs for tents, water bottles, bathrooms and spaces for washing up, and a general wider public availability of menstrual materials.
Menstrual advocacy should not leave behind these women, their voices, and those of other marginalized, menstruating women such as those who are displaced or live with disabilities.
Dr. Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) also touched on Dr. Houghton’s list of concerns, sharing a successful example of avoiding the sensationalization or demonization of women for their menstrual practices and beliefs. Saraswati noted that, “in India there’s a lot of social taboo around menstruation going back, in the culture and religion, and one of the things that we’ve been doing with the GIWA is bringing about programs of behavioral change”.
Rather than trying to drive change with potentially counter-productive criticism of local cultural and religious menstrual norms, Dr. Saraswati and her colleagues have directly involved renowned male and female religious leaders in normalizing menstruation and encouraging period positivity.
The audience also learned of women and girls’ lived experiences with menstruation outside the home in Cameroon through Olivia Boum, a menstrual hygiene management (MHM) Trainer and Director of Kmerpad Cameroon. Ms. Boum’s work centers on educating women, men, girls and boys through MHM labs, teaching both boys and girls about menstrual health, providing women in rural areas with re-usable pads, and using technology and social media to inform youth about menstruation. Her team’s efforts are a successful example of resourcefulness and collaboration, and Ms. Boum intends to see their program expanded. She noted, “we are more and more engaging in social enterprise in Africa, and our aim is to work together to scale up our approach”.
Danielle Engel, Technical Specialist on Adolescents and Youth at the UNFPA, provided a look at what menstrual advocacy would look like on a wider scale. Ms. Engel shared outcomes of the world’s first regional symposium on menstrual health which took place last year in Johannesburg. Outcomes included strengthened multi-sectoral advocacy and coalition-building around improving regional menstrual health and integrating it into development policies.
Another pivotal outcome was the establishment of an African coalition on MHM, which has since implemented five task forces focusing on different aspects of the issue. The coalition offers proof of the potential of cross-sectoral and international collaboration.
Sue Coates, panel moderator and Executive Director a.i. of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), closed with many important takeaways for States attending the CSW and all those wishing to advance menstrual health in this time of unprecedented attention to the issue.
Most importantly, she noted that all advocacy efforts should be centered around the idea that, “menstrual health should not be something we have to bargain for. Wherever we are, globally, this is not a bargain. This is something that is at the heart of all human rights”.
The side event was hosted by the Permanent Missions of Germany and Spain to the United Nations in New York in partnership with the WSSCC and Columbia University.