Making Menstrual Health Management an Everyday Priority, from Coffee Tables to Policy Tables

For this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day, Women Deliver Young Leaders Tanjila Mazumder Drishti of Bangladesh and Eli-Anne Anwi Tembeng of Cameroon came together to share the need for a holistic approach to menstrual health management, even in times of crisis — from increasing access to menstrual health products and education to building gender-sensitive infrastructure and applying a gender and youth lens to health policy and pandemic responses.

Although menstruation is a normal, healthy part of many people’s lives, the stigma surrounding it is pervasive and has far-reaching impacts on individuals, communities, and countries around the world. Safe menstrual care is a cornerstone of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and promoting menstrual health management is not only a sanitation issue, but essential to safeguarding the health and rights of girls and women, in all their intersecting identities, as well as many trans men and non-binary people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated global inequalities, including access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) products and comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), which are critical to advancing gender equality, empowering people to make informed choices, and saving lives. Given the toll of the pandemic on SRHR, both of us have refocused our advocacy on menstrual health management, which impacts all communities but in particular affects marginalized communities in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Without proper education and changes in cultural norms, girls are dropping out of school, women are losing out on economic opportunities, and both girls and women are being confined to the home.

Menstrual health management is an important part of our broader advocacy around SRHR and gender equality, and we are excited to share two examples at the local and country level that we hope can inform your work.

Bangladesh: Emergency Response Aid Baskets Include Sanitary Pads

I work for BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, which is based in Bangladesh. Each year, BRAC reaches 110 million people across Bangladesh through its holistic community-based health program. Prior to the pandemic, BRAC catered to adolescent girls’ health needs by performing a combination of targeted outreach at schools and at the household level. During the pandemic, however, school closures in Bangladesh severely curtailed access to health services for adolescent girls. At the same time, households around the country faced a devastating lockdown-induced economic shock. In Bangladesh’s labor-intensive economy, lockdown measures disproportionately impacted women in the workforce. Shrinking incomes meant that many families no longer had sufficient money for food, let alone sanitary pads and other menstrual hygiene products; as a result, many girls and women reverted to using unhygienic cloths to stem the flow of their periods, making them susceptible to infection and disease.

As part of its COVID-19 response, BRAC designed aid baskets to provide essential household items to communities hit hardest by the pandemic in Bangladesh. During this time, it was crucial to ask: what do we consider essential products? In male-dominated international development decision-making spaces, sanitary pads are often overlooked when designing emergency response aid baskets. Based on a needs assessment on the ground, together with my team members, I pointed out that sanitary pads should be included as an essential relief item. Upon getting buy-in from senior management, I mobilized a partnership with Proctor and Gamble to distribute free sanitary pads to over 100,000 girls and women through BRAC’s door-to-door network in urban slums, rural villages, and remote indigenous communities across Bangladesh where supply of SRH products had been disrupted during the early days of the pandemic.

Mbengwi: Training Workshops on CSE Include Menstrual Hygiene

As the Founder of Hope for a Better Tomorrow (HOBET), a Cameroon-based grassroots organization dedicated to ending rape culture and gender-based violence, as well as mitigating the devastating impact of climate change on vulnerable girls and women, I have incorporated menstrual hygiene management into our holistic health campaigns in the wake of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Anglophone Crisis, an ongoing sociopolitical conflict in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon which began in 2017. In 2018, at the height of the Anglophone Crisis, many women and children were displaced, and widespread attacks on schools prevented girls and young women from accessing health education, including lessons on menstruation. As a result, many internally displaced girls and women in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon began to use grass to stem their monthly flow, putting them at greater risk of infection.

In response to the crisis, many humanitarian organizations provided emergency relief, including food and mattresses. However, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services were not provided until late 2020, when buckets and soap were added to aid packages. Even when sanitary pads were finally included in early 2021, lack of adequate menstrual hygiene awareness remained a key barrier to girls’ and women’s menstrual health management.

As part of its commitment to building communities where adolescent girls and young women have access to menstrual hygiene services, products, and education, this year, HOBET is launching its #EvenInCrisisWeBleed and #GiftThemMenstrualKits campaigns. On Menstrual Hygiene Day, my team and I are organizing training workshops to teach girls and women in Mbengwi, a rural community in English-speaking Cameroon that has been severely impacted by the Anglophone Crisis, how to calculate their monthly flow, maintain proper hygiene during and after menstruation, limit the spread of COVID-19, and identify and report cases of gender-based violence in their community. We will also provide introductory lessons in CSE and educate them on the role of law in ending rape culture. At the end of the workshop, participants will receive sanitary pads, hand sanitizers, face masks, pants, reusable pads, and menstrual beads. Currently, we have menstrual kits for 100 girls and women, but it is our hope to ultimately distribute 2000 disposable pads, 1000 reusable pads, and menstrual kits containing 1500 pants, 1500 menstrual beads, 500 hand towels, and face masks.

Key Advocacy Messages:

We call on decision-makers, policymakers, and advocates of all ages to join us in educating and advocating around these key messages.

  1. Myths and misinformation around menstruation can be destructive, and we must tackle cultural and social stigmas around menstruation through education and awareness raising — for people of all genders. This includes teaching people who menstruate about the changes their bodies experience during their periods and proper menstrual health management, as well as performing outreach with men in communities where fathers often prevent their daughters from receiving menstrual education and religious leaders perpetuate the notion that menstruation is “unclean.” Delivering CSE, both in and out of schools, is a key mechanism for this.
  2. Periods don’t stop for pandemics or political conflicts. Menstrual hygiene products should be treated as essential items, and emergency response initiatives must be designed with a gender lens. This means including sanitary pads and other products in relief packages during times of crisis, as well as emphasizing menstrual health in conversations around universal health coverage (UHC) and access to SRHR.
  3. It is equally important to consider the larger ecosystem within which advocacy for menstrual health management takes place. We need to take a holistic approach that includes building gender-sensitive infrastructure, such as proper washrooms in schools and workplaces and adequate water and sanitation. Unsafe menstrual hygiene practices, lack of education, and limited access to SRHR services and proper facilities work together to create harmful long-term health and economic impacts on girls and women, causing a ripple effect on both household incomes and the national economy.
  4. Real and lasting progress can only be achieved and sustained through meaningful engagement and co-leadership of adolescents and young people in decision- and policy-making spaces. It is vital to make menstrual health an everyday priority and ensure the needs, expertise, perspectives, and lived experiences of youth are centered in all conversations, from coffee tables to policy tables.

Today we celebrate our fellow young people and youth leaders who are creating the world they want to see by tackling issues related to menstrual hygiene to create a more just, gender-equal world.

Tanjila Mazumder Drishti, BRAC Senior Manager, and Eli-Anne Anwi Tembeng, Founder of Hope for a Better Tomorrow (HOBET)
Women Deliver Young Leaders

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