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Opinion

Opinion: Let’s Talk Menstruation. Period.

Chris W. Williams is the Executive Director of the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, the UN’s only body devoted to the sanitation and hygiene needs of vulnerable and marginalised people worldwide, and Kersti Strandqvist is Senior Vice President of Group Sustainability for Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget, based in Stockholm.

Strengthening women’s positions, and giving them the opportunity to fully participate in society is necessary if we are to achieve the SDG targets. Credit: Farooq Ahmed/IPS

Strengthening women’s positions, and giving them the opportunity to fully participate in society is necessary if we are to achieve the SDG targets. Credit: Farooq Ahmed/IPS

NEW YORK, May 14 2015 (IPS) - Every month, more than two billion women around the world menstruate, and yet the topic is still shrouded by a veil of silence. While some girls celebrate their period as the first step into womanhood, many girls in developing or emerging countries are shocked and ashamed of their monthly cycles.

Recent studies have found that over 70 percent of girls in India had no idea what was happening to them when they started their first period; 50 percent of girls in Iran believe that menstruation is a disease; and over 50 percent of girls in Ethiopia miss between one and four days of school per month due to menstruation.

In every country, the veil of silence around menstruation contributes to discrimination that can hold women back in their personal lives and professional careers.

Even in the United States, where menstruation management is taught in schools and girls typically have access to the necessary resources and infrastructure, the topic remains a taboo, preferably not addressed in polite circles. Real-life examples abound.

In March, Instagram twice removed a photo of a fully clothed woman with two visible spots of blood, because it violated their ‘community guidelines.’ In January, tennis star Heather Watson shocked the world by ascribing her Australian open defeat to ‘girl things.’

In every country, the veil of silence around menstruation contributes to discrimination that can hold women back in their personal lives and professional careers.

It is time for the global community to break its silence on menstruation so that women and girls can discuss the topic without shame, and reap the rewards for their health, education and quality of life.

The taboo surrounding menstruation is a barrier to equal participation and opportunities for women. More importantly, this neglect of a woman’s need to manage their menstruation inside and outside the home is a violation of a host of human rights – in many countries, menstruating women are banned from praying, cooking, or sleeping near their family.

Current research shows that menstrual education in every country continues to provide girls with mixed messages; on the one hand it is a normal, natural event, however girls are also taught that it should be hidden.

This taboo on female development has also had unintended consequences for U.S. aid priorities – according to development experts, the U.S. government will remain reluctant to fund education initiatives in developing or emerging countries until there is a proven link between toilets in schools or menstrual management education to an improvement in attendance rates or performance in school.

The countdown has begun to the United Nations release of the Sustainable Development Goals, and women’s empowerment is expected to take center stage as a cross-cutting issue that will lift the development of society as a whole.

Strengthening women’s positions, and giving them the opportunity to fully participate in society is necessary if we are to achieve these targets.

The ambitious goal of ensuring equality for women and girls requires a multi-stakeholder approach, with collaboration from communities, government, U.N. agencies, private sector, academia, NGOs, media and others. It is time for all sectors to work together to ensure that menstruation is far higher on the development agenda.

By leveraging public-private partnerships, a unique combination of funding can ensure that market research from the private sector can efficiently contribute to the effectiveness of aid and investment.

This week, the global movement to break the silence on menstruation comes to the U.S. as Team SCA, an all-women crew of sailors participating in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, docks in Newport, Rhode Island. The team is promoting the message of women’s empowerment.

With support from the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), a U.N. body dedicated to achieving safe sanitation and hygiene for the most vulnerable through community-led approaches, Team SCA has participated in several menstrual hygiene management training sessions during the race.

Practical, sustainable change for women and girls can be achieved through research, innovation and education. Governments, community leaders, opinion leaders, and global citizens must speak out to change attitudes, upend customs that restrain menstruating women and girls, and promote basic education about periods.

Menstrual hygiene management is only the beginning but it is a critical first step… we need to break the silence across the female lifecycle, from puberty to menopause to old-age.

Eliminating these taboos is an international responsibility, and an opportunity for the U.S. to lead by example, by increasing awareness of this monthly global human rights violation, as well as holding an open and honest discussion about its own taboos.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

 
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