Distribution of menstrual cups at a school in Mamelodi, Pretoria. Photo by: GCIS / CC BY-ND

Half the world menstruates for a significant part of their lives. 300 million women and girls have their period on any given day. Menstruation is an entirely normal biological process and a sign of good health — and yet menstruation is still enshrouded in myths and misconceptions, and menstruating women and girls can be excluded and stigmatized.

Millions of girls have little to no knowledge about menstruation. In India, 50 percent of all girls have no idea what is happening when they bleed for the first time. In Tanzania, this figure increases to 70 percent. Due to the lack of access to affordable hygienic absorbents, millions of women and girls have no other option but to use rags, dried leaves, newspapers or other unhygienic options, exposing them to the risk of infection.

Menstrual health, while excluded from SDGs, gains spotlight at UN political forum

The common emphasis on sanitary pads and materials, and not education regarding menstruation, needs to be rethought, experts say.

At least 500 million women and girls globally lack access to sanitation facilities that are adequate for menstrual hygiene management, or MHM. In Uganda, 1 in 2 girls report not attending school during menstruation. Millions of girls and women around the world miss educational or income-earning opportunities and are kept from achieving their full potential.

Menstruation is a critical element of investing in adolescent girls

The ongoing neglect of menstruation does not just hurt women and girls around the world, it negatively affects overall global economic development. While development funding has been focused on children between 0-5 years of age and mothers, adolescent girls and their specific needs have often been neglected.

In fact, to our knowledge at this point, The Case For Her is still the only funder who has menstruation and menstrual hygiene as a strategic priority. Without adequate investment in supporting girls at the start of menstruation, we risk that girls fall behind and are limited to fully participating and contributing to society for the rest of their lives.

Investments in MHM do not only benefit girls, but entire societies across generations.

When girls are empowered to manage their menstruation safely, hygienically, with confidence, and without stigma, they are more likely to stay in school once they start puberty. A girl that stays in school is less likely to get married early, have children when she is not yet ready to, or become subject to domestic violence.

If a girl stays in school, she will earn more and have fewer children who will be healthier and better-educated. Overall, her family will be healthier and wealthier, and so will her children’s families.

According to World Bank estimates, a 1 percent increase in girls completing secondary education increases gross domestic product by 0.3 percent and annual growth rates by 0.2 percent.

Over the past few years, concerted advocacy efforts on the issue, including through global Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, have managed to break the silence and increase MHM visibility. Now, leading United Nations institutions are finally starting to put their political weight behind the issue.

There still are two critical gaps however: leadership and funding. Senior leaders, policymakers, and donors must align to accelerate progress on the issue.

Call to action by the UN Human Rights Council

On Sept. 27, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. While adding important new language on water, sanitation, and gender, the resolution also includes an unprecedented call to action on MHM.

Specifically, the resolution, co-sponsored by 50 member states, calls upon states to “address the widespread stigma and shame surrounding menstruation and menstrual hygiene by ensuring access to factual information thereon, addressing the negative social norms around the issue and ensuring universal access to hygienic products and gender-sensitive facilities, including disposal options for menstrual products;”

This is ground-breaking for two reasons: one, because it is the first time that a leading U.N. body explicitly calls on states to address the challenges women and girls face in relation to menstruation and MHM. Second, because it recognizes that good menstrual hygiene requires not just access to hygienic products, but also access to accurate information, supportive social norms, and gender-sensitive sanitation facilities including disposal options.

Addressing the challenges girls and women face with regard to menstruation and menstrual hygiene can have a vast positive impact not only for girls and women, but for society at large.

If you are a policymaker, thought leader or donor interested in supporting women and girls: Dare to take up the call to action by the U.N. Human Rights Council, prioritize, and invest in MHM.

About the authors

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    Thorsten Kiefer

    Thorsten Kiefer is founder and CEO of WASH United, a Berlin-based nonprofit organization that works to end the global sanitation and hygiene crisis. He is a human rights lawyer turned toilet activist turned social entrepreneur. Thorsten is driven by the vision of a world in which we can talk openly about toilets, shit and hygiene, in which all people enjoy the safety and dignity of a toilet, practice hand washing with soap, and all women and girls get to manage their menstruation safely, in privacy and with dignity.
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    Gerda Larsson

    Gerda Larsson is the co-founder and director at the innovative funding collaborative The Case For Her which invests in for-profit social enterprises, organizations, and initiatives where it sees significant growth opportunities that support and benefit an underserved population.