Why menstrual hygiene is integral to solving the WASH crisis

As we all know, ‘Menstrual Hygiene’ does not roll off the tongue easily. In fact, it is the deafening silence and pervasive cultural taboos around this normal biological function that has led to a worldwide push to reserve a Day (May 28) to acknowledge it. The silence and awkwardness around menstruation adversely impacts the lives and well being of so many women around the world. It keeps them out of schools, away from work, results in shame, oppression and sickness.

I would particularly like to acknowledge all the men – fathers, husbands, brothers, sons – that are open to learning about the challenges that girls and women face, It is clear that it is only by working together that we will start to change the status quo and to make much needed global progress!

As a reminder WASH stands for the lack of Water + Sanitation + Hygiene education). The reason we call it a crisis is because 2.8 Billion (yes 4 out of every 10 people) are still without access to sanitation or toilets, and close to 800 million without access to clean water. The health implications of this and the lack of hygiene education are enormous: unwashed hands, excreta lying around, 4000 children dying per day from preventable water borne diseases. Diarrhea itself kills more kids than the combination of measles, aids and malaria combined. They are also innumerable workdays lost due to water-borne illness. All this is quite enough to have a sizable adverse impact on the GDP of nations.

So, you say, “Let’s provide toilets and hand them soap – problem solved!” But it is not so easy. We have to change attitudes and desires that are deeply embedded in cultural contexts. We need to help establish new routines and behaviours, such as making menstruation something we can all talk about!

Research shows that one of the best places to start with behavior change is schools. Yet, 50% of schools in the developing world are still without water and toilets. While this is hard for all students – imagine for a minute how devastating it can be for young adolescent girls that are dealing with starting menstruation. Imagine the problem of not having suitable products to manage your monthly period, or the simple privacy of a toilet and some water to clean-up. Instead you get to face an awkward silence from the adults who want nothing to do with the topic. And often giggles and jeers from your peers in the likely event of a small accident. It is no wonder that so many adolescent girls choose to drop out of school!

“A squeaky wheel gets the grease” One of the first things you learn in development is that if you do not hear about or acknowledge a problem, no one will address it. By feeling awkward around the subject of Menstruation and not being open to hearing about this routine, normal bodily function – that helped give birth to us all –we do a great disservice to young women and girls all over the world.

So what can you do? Start to have conversations about this topic at home and at work – with your family, colleagues and friends – break the silence barrier! Stay informed and engaged.

We all need to work together to educate ourselves about their challenges, and help remove the pervasive shame, oppression, and lack of resources for millions of young girls… our world’s collective future!

Best wishes,

Lotika Shaunik Paintal

Director WASH Canada

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