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We have come a long way, but educating schoolgirls and women remains essential.
On this Menstrual Hygiene Day, it is important to remember how far we have come. I vividly remember sitting in a workshop room at the SNV office in Kampala in 2012, sincerely wondering if anyone would look at our small IRC/SNV joint study on the role of Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in Ugandan schools. Our 2013 study showed that about half of the school girl pupils in the study reported missing 1-3 days of primary school per month. This translates into a loss of 8 to 24 school days per year.
Missing school can translate into lower educational outcomes for girls, which can have lifelong implications, not to mention the fact that, even if she is in school, she might not be an effective learner if she does not have what she needs to practice good MHM. To my surprise, it was noticed by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and lead to the first Menstrual Hygiene Management conference, held in Kampala, Uganda in 2014. From there, UNICEF joined in the MHM fight and conducted a 14-country study on MHM.
This MH Day, let’s reflect with pride on how far we have come in the area of awareness, openness to discuss the issue, which is still a taboo topic even in ‘developed’ countries, and the drive to implement effective MH programmes.
Since working at IRC for more than a decade and a half (hard to believe!), I have moved on to become a regional WASH adviser for World Vision, with a focus on WASH in the Middle East. Over the last two years, I have had the honour of working with many gifted people and key organisations in this region who are working to provide more effective and efficient WASH services in emergency, transition and long term.
In this new part of my work journey, I have had the privilege to also work with the World Vision National Offices on providing WASH services in non-household settings - especially in schools, health care facilities, and refugee camps. One of the common denominators in these settings is a focus on the lives of girls. While menstruation remains a taboo in some parts of the Western world, most girls at least receive education about menstruation prior to menarche both in schools and from their mothers, empowering them with knowledge of how to hygienically manage their menstrual cycle - hence the importance of WASH. Girls throughout the Middle East, however, often lack this essential information, making menarche especially scary, stressful, and an embarrassing experience. For example, a majority of Jordanian school girls reported that they did not learn about menstruation until they experienced menarche (Jarrah and Kamel, 2012).
Therefore poor education about menstruation and its link to WASH needs to be treated as a human rights violation that demands immediate attention. According to the United Nations Population Fund’s Global Consultation on Sexuality Education in 2010, comprehensive education is a human right on the bases of Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and also the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Call to action
So what do we need to do more of now?
- A further systematic mapping of MHM not only globally, but regionally, nationally and also at the local level;
- More guidance, facilities and materials for schoolgirls and women to manage their menstruation in both low- and middle-income countries. This means taking more action to improve school conditions for girls. This means systematic mapping of MHM priorities or coordination of relevant sectors and disciplines to catalyze change, with an emphasis on developing country-level expertise;
- Even more formative evidence to raise awareness that poor menstrual hygiene management (MHM) contributes to inequity;
- Advocating for more comprehensive education around MHM for all girls so that they better understand their rights;
- Continuing to work with academia, non-governmental organisations, the UN, donor agencies, the private sector, and social entrepreneurial groups to further prioritise, coordinate and invest in MHM.
The repercussions of keeping our girls in school is not be underestimated. Addressing the harmful social norms and taboos that hinder girls’ and women’s ability to reach their full potential needs to be fully recognised if we are to reinforce the basic dignity and right to access sanitation and hygiene that helps them care well for themselves and be fully contributing members of their communities. So wishing you all a happy MH day…keep the importance of this day alive!
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