3 Questions

3 questions to Pim van der Male

Menstruation is a natural and essential part of the reproductive cycle. However, in most parts of the world it remains a taboo subject that is rarely talked about. We talked to Pim van der Male, Senior Policy Officer WASH at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about this topic. What are his thought about menstrual hygiene management?

1

Why is it important that women are able to manage their menstruation hygienically, with confidence and without stigma?

“Addressing the issues related to this topic is all about the need for inclusiveness and leaving no one behind. Women and girls menstruate for about 3500 days over a lifetime. This is a completely natural biological phenomenon. Since menstruation is an important indicator of female health and vitality it is critical that women are able to access the safety, privacy and facilities they need to manage these menstrual flows hygienically and in comfort and dignity. By doing so they can continue to participate fully in their daily lives at work, school or home. Shrouding this natural phenomenon with stigma has resulted in ignorance, fear, misinformation, poor hygiene, withdrawal from daily activities, fear and shame. It has often kept girls out of school, women away from work and most importantly had a long term deleterious impact on women’s confidence and mobility.”

2

What is the biggest challenge in raising awareness for the challenges women face during their menstruation?

“Deep rooted stigma, superstitions and beliefs passed down from generation to generation are the biggest challenge to the free flow of correct information to girls and boys, women and men everywhere. Menstrual blood and menstruation is associated with uncleanliness and impurity and considered polluting in many cultures. Additionally, when a girl reaches her first period, her menstruation is an indicator of possible fertility signaling her passage into adulthood. In many societies, there is a concerted effort to control and restrict her access to information about her own body in order to control her sexuality and her linked life choices and paths. The importance of a full understanding of menstruation as vital information for hygiene, confidence, health and mobility is underestimated. The challenge is a social one of breaking a centuries old silence to replace it with information, openness, questions and dialogue about our bodies, menstrual blood and how to manage it safely and without shame.”

3

In what way will creating more awareness and enabling environments for menstrual hygiene (management) empower girls and women?

“Our external environments are rarely constructed with the diversity of human beings and their needs in mind. Men and women come in different shapes and sizes and have different needs depending on which stage in their life they are at. Women and girls are confronted with poorly located and lit public toilets that they dare not use. How much more challenging this becomes every month for two to five days when they dare not leave home due to fear of staining their clothes because they cannot find a safe space to change used menstrual materials, or fear of feeling unclean because they cannot wash themselves or find a place to dispose used cloth or pads. Because of this uncaring hostile gender insensitive environment, girls stay home when they menstruate and women reduce or restrict their mobility. Repeated absences from school and work as well as the negative social perceptions and reactions to menstruating women take a toll on her inner self confidence, her decisions to participate fully in daily activities, the choices she makes as a result with wide ranging impact on wider life choices. For example frequent absences from school impact the quality of her learning and work as well as her self-confidence… poor grades and also her family questioning her value of staying in school, completion and continuing to higher studies.

We need to start by breaking the silence. We need to replace the silence and myths with simple correct information about why women menstruate, the menstrual cycle, how to manage menstruation hygienically while being responsible to the environment. Girls and women freed of this shame – can openly talk, ask and get questions answered, in turn talk and extend support to others. Freed of the taboos they can seek help and advice to manage their periods properly washing frequently, changing materials appropriately and participating fully in daily activities. Awareness for boys and men is also critical so that they support and friends, colleagues and family members replacing ignorance, curiosity and negative behavior with empathy and practical action. It is essential to engender and transform public spaces – transport hubs, markets, government buildings, work places, educational and health establishments to practically recognize that women and girls menstruate and require a safe private place to change, wash, dry and dispose off menstrual materials. It is important to integrate these aspects in all sanitation programmes. This is what we committed ourselves to in the new DGIS WASH strategy. If this were achieved worldwide, women and girls could participate fully in public life instead of retreating for several days every month from an essentially hostile, gender insensitive environment. Additionally talking about this simple fact of life with pride instead of shame will lift a centuries old socially imposed burden and enable next generations to walk tall.”

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