Imagine if for five days every month, you were forbidden from interacting with boys or men. Or from cooking or touching cooking utensils for fear you might contaminate the food.
What if, despite living in a humid tropical country, you weren’t allowed to bathe in cold water, or even wash your hair?
Imagine if, on top of all this, you were expected to manage your heightened need for hygiene and privacy when you have limited or no access to water, clean toilets, soap, or sanitary materials.
This is the reality faced by most women and girls in many Pacific island countries for 3,000 days in their lifetime, simply because they are female and undergoing the normal biological process of menstruation.
28 May is Menstrual Hygiene Day, a good time to ask ourselves why, despite global efforts to empower women and girls, progress on supporting menstrual hygiene management—directly linked to women and girls’ rights to equality, health, and dignity—is still so slow.
Education, hardware both necessary to make progress
This year’s theme is education. Girls in the Pacific, like in many developing countries, miss up to five days of school every month because their schools don’t provide adequate facilities for girls to manage their period.
Girls who do attend class may experience reduced self-confidence and concentration, and be less engaged in lessons. This may be due to menstruation-related discomfort, being too embarrassed to stand up for fear of a stained uniform, or of being teased.
A lack of facilities may also impact the willingness of female teachers to work in schools, leading to an absence of female teachers to mentor girls and discuss menstruation. Poor facilities more broadly result in women missing work, lost economic opportunities, and women’s voices being absent from community meetings.
Taboos and inaccurate information surrounding menstruation persist in the Pacific. In the Solomon Islands, for instance, mothers often don’t discuss menstruation with their daughters, as it is seen as encouraging girls to engage in sexual experimentation.
In Vanuatu, one study showed girls have limited or no knowledge on menstrual hygiene at menarche (first period). Timor-Leste men use words such as “disease” and “spell” when describing their wives’ physical state during their menses.
But while the need for education to break negative social norms is clear, how can we expect results without explicitly providing the necessary hardware? We need materials, spaces, water, soap, and disposal facilities that cater to menstruation. Without these key ingredients, aren’t we just giving lip service to the cause?
Without proper disposal facilities, sanitary materials often choke sewers or end up in public spaces, causing risks to community and environmental health. In Kiribati, women report that although their daughters know to put sanitary pads in trash bags instead of down the toilet, the uncollected trash piles up and smells bad.
Cost is another factor. In Timor-Leste, for some women it’s hard to get sanitary materials because they don’t control the family income. Those who can’t afford pads may resort to using rags, paper, or nothing at all.
Promising examples of entrepreneurship involving the production and sale of reusable, washable pads do exist, but so far these tend to be small-scale, and in some cases there may be a cultural preference for using other types of sanitary protection materials.
Apart from health hazards, security risks may result from women having to travel long distances in difficult conditions to find a kiosk with supplies of imported disposable pads. In some Pacific islands, women may be expected to sleep outside their home during their menses, making them more vulnerable to assault.
Include menstrual hygiene management in WASH policies
So, how can we support more effective and dignified management of menstruation in the Pacific?
First, provide opportunities for information and dialogue involving girls, boys, parents, schools, teachers, community leaders and health professionals to learn about menstrual hygiene management, counter misinformation, and build self-esteem.
Second, ensure the concept is included in the definition of acceptable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and policies.
Third, plan and provide resources for appropriate WASH facilities: there must be enough, located in a safe location, gender-segregated, clean, private, with adequate water and soap for washing and bathing, and proper disposal facilities.
Fourth, ensure girls and women can access affordable sanitary protection materials – especially in schools.
Lastly, menstrual hygiene management must be addressed and adequately resourced not only in the WASH sector, but also across health, education, adolescent and youth development and life skills programs.
Improving menstrual hygiene management boosts a girl’s and a woman’s quality of life. It directly impacts her health, education, and income prospects, and indirectly has positive effects on the lives of her family and community.
Better menstrual hygiene management is not just obvious – it’s an imperative to empower women and girls in the Pacific.