Menstruation Matters: A Guide to Menstrual Hygiene Day

May 28 is Menstrual Hygiene Day! What does that mean exactly? 

Menstruation happens all year long—each menstruating person has their own unique rhythms and cycles. But in 2014, a coalition of NGOs decided that menstruation should get its own day of global recognition. And so Menstrual Hygiene Day made its first appearance last May 28.

In many countries, menstruation is still treated as a taboo. Even in countries where it’s more okay to discuss periods, young people often have inadequate information about periods and hygiene. That leads millions of people to engage in unhygienic menstrual practices due to inadequate facilities or fear of being punished or shamed.

In rural India, many menstruating individuals do not have access to affordable, hygienic products and facilities, so they have to use unsanitary materials such as dried leaves, sand, or newspapers. Freedom for Girls, a program providing undergarments, sanitary napkins and hygiene education to young women in Kenya, found that some girls in the Nairobi neighborhood of Mukuru reported having sex with older men to pay for essential sanitary items such as menstrual products. In a study by HERProject, an organization supporting women in global supply chains through education and access partnerships, 73 percent of the Bangladeshi garment workers interviewed miss work every month due to vaginal infections caused by unsanitary menstrual materials.

And there are also challenges—and dangers—which menstrual hygiene equally presents in countries with adequate or insufficient access to products and facilities alike. Chem Fatale, a research study recently released by Women’s Voices for the Earth, reports that chemicals like dioxin, carcinogens, and reproductive toxins have been found in tampons and pads. While companies assure shoppers that these chemicals’ percentage is so low that it wouldn’t affect their customers’ health, an average person who uses tampons will use over 16,800 of them during the course of a lifetime. There’s almost no data on the health effects of the cumulative use of tampons over several years, which can be a little scary. On top of that, there are environmental issues to consider when you’re thinking about menstruation as a social and political issues. The manufacturing process of disposable products such as tampons and pads—turning wood pulp into soft, cotton-like fibers—is extremely resource-heavy and chemical-intensive. Once they’re are used, tampons and pads can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, especially when wrapped in plastic. Sustainable alternatives such as menstrual cups and reusable pads are available on the market, but they’re often unknown to many potential customers—also as a consequence of messaging and lack of disclosure of information from major menstrual product brands that wouldn’t see favorable profit from the production of such reusable articles.

An infographic from Menstrual Hygiene Day.

The groups behind Menstrual Hygiene Day aim to raise awareness about the challenges many individuals face during their menstruation and make it clear that having a safe, hygienic period is a human right. The date was chosen mixing up some pretty symbolic numbers: The average number of days a period lasts is five and the average number of days in a menstrual cycle is 28. So Menstrual Hygiene Day happens on the 28th day of the fifth month of the year.

Furthermore, Menstrual Hygiene Day is a day to build understanding that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women. There are cisgender women who, often for health-related reasons or their birth control, do not menstruate. There are transgender women who do not have uteri and do not menstruate. And there are intersex people or people not identifying as women, but as trans men, genderqueer, gender non-conforming individuals who can menstruate. All menstruating individuals have the right to receive suitable information and medical care to experience a healthy menstrual cycle, and this is still challenged by ignorance and prejudice. Menstrual hygiene is a critical human right and menstrual education is essential not only for those who menstruate, but for all human beings.

Why menstrual hygiene is fundamental:

  • Human rights: All human rights originate from the fundamental right to human dignity, and if menstruating individuals are forced to have their period in inadequate hygienic conditions and constrained to isolation, dignity can’t be maintained. Additionally, a lack of appropriate menstrual hygiene management denies them the rights to health, education and work in appropriate conditions.

  • Health: Poor menstrual hygiene, insufficient water and sanitation facilities, and troublesome access to sanitary menstrual materials affects physical health, as well as social and mental well-being, and is a violation of the human right to health.

  • Personal development and economy: A lack of menstrual hygiene holds back menstruating people as individuals and as active members in their communities. The lack of menstrual hygiene facilities and services, and the shame related to menstruation brings individuals to miss school and work, causing far reaching consequences for personal development and economic growth and progress.

  • Environment: Menstrual hygiene products affect the environment in different ways. Commercial tampons and pads can contain harsh chemicals including pesticides and dioxin, a serious environmental pollutant. Disposable products such as tampons and pads require hundreds of years to biodegrade, especially if wrapped in plastic. Where a waste disposal infrastructure is missing, it is common to see used hygiene products on the street, and this can cause public health problems, as the menstrual fluid on these disposed products may get contaminated with germs.

Here are some projects you can join, explore, and share to celebrate and promote menstrual hygiene rights.

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Beatrice Martini is a capacity builder, facilitator and curator, working with technology for social justice and human rights. You can find out more about her work and writings on her blog and newsletter and read her tweeting @beatricemartini.

by Beatrice Martini
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