May 28th serves internationally as Menstrual Hygiene Day. According to the official website, it is a time for men and women around the world to work to “break the silence and build awareness around menstrual hygiene management.”
One might ask themselves, “Why menstrual hygiene, of all things?” Shouldn’t we also care about the hygiene of men, who for the most part do not menstruate, or about the hygiene of prepubescent and postmenopausal women for that matter? What about other forms of personal hygiene that fall outside the purview of the once-a-month, week-long event?
Put simply, no form of hygiene, when neglected, seems to have such a far-reaching and deleterious effect on the physical, economic and social success of people as menstrual hygiene. This may be hard to conceptualize in developed nations, where we ironically have the privilege of being ashamed of feminine hygiene products, an innovation that allows for the safe and sanitary management of menses. In many less developed parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, whether or not a girl has ready access to sanitary napkins or clean menstrual rags is the difference between future success and a life of poverty and meager prospects — that is, of course, assuming her life is not taken prematurely by diseases contracted as a result of poor sanitation.
In many parts of Africa and around the globe, girls are frequently forced to miss school during their periods because they lack the proper means of menstrual care — from collection, to disposal, to pain management. Further, the issue of menstrual hygiene is taboo, which prevents a dialogue about the issue. There is not nearly enough rigorous evidence on the issue of just how much this impacts girls in undeveloped nations, but UNICEF estimates that in many countries girls miss 20% of the school year due to having their periods, and that one in ten will miss significant amounts of school or drop out entirely for this reason. It is no exaggeration to say that pads are vital to female education in Africa and other less-developed locations.
Edward Echwalu Photography
But there is another reason, aside from educational prospects, that the general issue of hygiene is such an important feminist issue, and it has less to do with periods. This past Menstrual Hygiene Day was overshadowed by another bleak reminder that poor hygiene is costing women around the globe dearly: a few weeks ago two Indian girls were raped and hanged from a tree by attackers who ambushed them while they were openly defecating, as many in poorer areas of India are likely to have to do. When the news media picked up on this case, many were quick to blame the practice of open defecation, rather than the attackers’ malice, for the deaths of the girls. And for obvious reasons, that is problematic and wrong; no one, and no one thing is more to blame for their deaths than the men responsible. But it is undeniable that the practice of open defecation due to a paucity of private toilet facilities puts women at greater risk of being victimized by opportunistic attackers, and it would be damnable not to act in response to that fact.
The issues of open defecation and poor menstrual hygiene both greatly affect masses of women in undeveloped nations, and there is something that must be done about both. Women must be able to relieve themselves privately, and women must be able to adequately care for themselves while on their periods — not only because those things are huge predictors for later success and prosperity, but because their absence is actually costing women their lives.
While we can try to change the cultural climate in which assaults take place, there will always be opportunistic people, there will always be rapists. But something we can change is how many women live without so much as a chamber pot; simply providing them with that item to defecate in means they would not have to venture outside the shelter of their homes and risk being victimized by predators. And while women will probably always have periods that are at least a mild inconvenience, we can ensure that more women in rural areas have access to adequate means of menstrual management, making it easier for them to focus on their education.
Photo by Peter van der Sluijs
Although they are serious public health concerns for all genders, hygiene and sanitation concerns almost always hit women harder, no matter how you slice it. It’s simply a function of anatomy; the natural flora in the female reproductive tract, easily disturbed by the introduction of certain strains of bacteria, must be kept in a delicate balance to prevent disease. It is also the case that outside of prisons, women are frequently victimized more than men, especially when placed in vulnerable situations and when living in societies that condone, or turn a blind eye to, violence against women.
Menstruation is a huge burden for women all around the globe, but even moreso in undeveloped corners of the world. The sooner people begin to recognize that hygiene and sanitation are decidedly woman-biased issues (not centered on menstruation alone) and focus on ensuring the success and safety of women the world over, the sooner we can work to change the conditions that cause these disadvantages.