Reflecting on the 2018 High Level Political Forum Part Two by Bette Levy

“New this year at the HLPF was the open discussions regarding Menstrual Hygiene, not just the usual conversations or key issues related to water and sanitation issues (Goal 6) but the specific issue of menstruation for women and girls.  The serious issues and risks to health, safety, gender equality, access to education and meaningful employment as well as the issues of waste management.

PART TWO – Menstrual Hygiene

I attended two sessions on the topic, the first was ‘Reducing inequalities through urgent action on WASH: SDG6 as an enabler for achieving the 2030 Agenda for all’.  Organized by:  WaterAid, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Center for Economic and Social Rights, Movement for Community-Led Development, and the Permanent Missions of Bolivia, Canada, Mozambique and Nepal to the United Nations.

This event brought together Member States with civil society leaders in action on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to discuss the necessary action if WASH was to be both achievable and essential in ensuring the dignity and wellbeing of all and realizing the 2030 Agenda. The focus was on women and girls, as well as other marginalized groups that face discrimination, poverty and social exclusion, and experience limited access to clean water, decent toilets, and good hygiene. They stressed the immediate benefits in terms of education, wellbeing and livelihoods when these services are available and their rights guaranteed. They especially discussed the issue of girls not being able to continue education once they began to menstruate in many rural communities due to the lack of proper toilet and hygiene facilities, the lack of feminine hygiene products or in some cases cultural or traditional rules.

The second side event I went to on this topic was ‘A rights-based approach to menstrual hygiene management: integrating water, sanitation, health, and gender equality to achieve the SDGs’, organized by International Women’s Health Coalition, WaterAid, and the European Union.

The concept note pointed out “Every day, 800 million women and girls are menstruating.” They further stated that few national policies, donor pledges, or global agendas include menstrual health and hygiene features. The premise is that menstrual health and hygiene requires a rights-based approach to meeting basic information, infrastructure, and supply needs and it requires collective action to end period stigma.” The discussion was focused on ways to link sexual and reproductive health, education, sanitation and hygiene programs to make greater progress on Sustainable Development Goals 3, 5 and 6. There was a call to end menstruation-related human rights violations.

This side event was a very passionate and lively discussion, one of the best I’ve attended. Filled with practical examples of programmes in Colombia, Kenya and Nepal and surprisingly, Nepal is quite progressive including legislation regarding menstrual health management.

Overall, there were common themes and bleak statistics. In the developing world, when girls are allowed to go to school they miss 20% of the school year due to their period (approximately 263 million girls). The major issue is the lack of sanitary supplies and clean/safe latrines and wash areas. In many countries including the United States there is a tax on sanitary supplies (Tampon Tax), increasing the costs so that it is impossible to buy. Also, in some countries (i.e.; Kenya) there are no regulations or limits on what can be used to make sanitary supplies so often toxic materials are used causing other health issues. In Tanzania only 2% of girls have sanitary supplies and in Bangladesh, 60% of women use cloth scrapes off the factory floor.  In parts of Colombia you are permitted only one sanitary pad per day and even that has created serious waste management issues.

The lack of comprehensive sexuality education often leaves both girls and boys ignorant to what is happening when a girl begins to menstruate. In India 70% of girls have no idea what is happening until they have their first period. There is a need to educate boys as well, because there is a mistaken belief that if a girl is bleeding this is a sign of sexual activity.  It is critical for girls to be able to control their menstrual health because it has a major impact on all aspects of their life.

In some countries like in the rural parts of Colombia, girls can be locked away in a hut for as long as a year as soon as they start bleeding. During the first month the focus is teaching them how to be a woman, they are taught about sex. While the length of stay in the huts is decreasing, there is still a connection to child marriage because regardless of the girl’s age once they come out of the hut they are expected to get married and have babies. Ending their education, their chance to be gainfully employed, to lead a full and productive life and endangering their health.

In Kenya, when a girl begins to menstruate she is told by her mother from that day forward she is no longer allowed to play with boys. That is the extent of the reproductive health information given.

In many communities menstruation is still viewed as girls/women being dirty not clean.  This is not just in rural or developing areas but also in cities due to cost factors that limits supplies or religious and cultural traditions.

While we think this relates just to the developing countries this is not the case. In the US as much as 80% of girls still miss school due to the lack of menstrual hygiene supplies. Even in this highly technical and social media era this is a still major issue. Often because many cultures still have a taboo surrounding the subject. Its time to discuss it openly and it excited me to see that it was discussed so freely during this HLPF. But we need to be pro-active – don’t go into places with a plan go in with options! For example knowledge about where there is a water supply (i.e.; church); what to do about waste management and exploring sustainable products, as well as advocating for comprehensive sexuality education for everyone. We need to find partners both female and male to advocate for this. As one of the speakers said “ we’re good at advocating for policies but were not good at advocating for implementation”.

My own club (Soroptimist International New York City) has a relationship with the NYC chapter of Days for Girls and through them we learned that a majority of the kits go to NYC students. Also, because of this relationship we were able to jointly supply 100 kits to hurricane ravished St Martin, where the SI Club there is using the supplies as entry in the schools to teach comprehensive sexuality education. SI members need to embrace this topic and bring it out into the open as a real impediment to achieving gender equality”.

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