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Hilda Alberda

Hilda Alberda is Simavi’s Director Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning and an expert on Menstrual Health. In 2016, she was invited by Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, to take part in an expert consultation on ‘Gender equality in the realisation of the human rights to water and sanitation’. Together with a group of experts, Hilda discussed topics such as menstruation, specific challenges that women face in accessing WASH, and how to combat gender-based violence related to water and sanitation – in short, a lot of issues close to Simavi’s heart.


Why is Menstrual Health so important?

“Every woman and girl in the world menstruates every month: it’s a core aspect of women’s life and their reproductive system. Although there is still room in the West for improvement regarding openness around menstruation, we do have access to information about menstruation from several sources. Most mothers inform their daughters about menstruation before their first period and many girls receive information at school as well. In addition, there is a wealth of information available on the Internet, as well as in books and magazines. Furthermore, we enjoy access to clean water and clean bathrooms at home, school, work and public places, and can choose from a range of affordable products such as sanitary pads, tampons and menstrual cups.

Unfortunately, too many girls in Asia and Africa aren’t informed about menstruation before or after their first period. Cultural norms and social beliefs prevent the subject being openly discussed, even between mothers and daughters. If menstruation is part of the school curriculum, the topic is often skipped by teachers and sometimes the relevant pages are torn out of textbooks. As a result, too many women and girls do not understand that menstruation is part of a healthy reproductive cycle, and they often lack the knowledge on how to manage their periods hygienically. In addition, a lack of clean water, soap, menstrual hygiene friendly toilets and sanitary pads and other menstrual products, makes maintaining good hygiene a significant challenge for many women and girls.”


What consequences does this have? And what is Simavi doing to change this state of affairs?

“Not being able to maintain proper hygiene during menstruation affects the wellbeing of girls and women. There is a lot of evidence (mostly qualitative) that shows girls don’t go to school during menstruation because they feel uncomfortable or they have no access to clean toilets there. Women tell similar stories of missing work or being less productive during menstruation. Although cultural norms and beliefs differ per country, region and even per village, more often than not, they result in restrictions imposed on women’s and girls’ daily life, including not being allowed to cook, sleep in the same bed as your husband or visit the mosque.

Simavi’s aim is to build upon existing structures and realise sustainable change by influencing policies and implementation on different levels. Stakeholders at local, regional and national level therefore play an important role in our menstrual health programmes. We work on creating access to education and information, as well as menstrual hygiene-friendly toilets, sanitary pads and other materials. Together with our local partners, we do this by raising awareness of the topic in schools and communities and simultaneously training teachers, health workers and other stakeholders to make a sustainable difference.

Innovation is an important part of Simavi’s programmes and where possible and applicable to the local situation we strive to find innovative solutions for menstrual health. The development of bio-degradable sanitary napkins, as part of our Ritu programme, is a good example of innovation. Furthermore, the Ritu programme is one of our new programmes in which we apply Evidence Based Programming. This means that where objective and solid evidence is available we make use of this to inform our interventions. The gaps in available evidence for the chosen interventions we will try to address through rigorous monitoring and evaluation of our programme.

To establish well-maintained and menstrual hygiene-friendly facilities, we work closely with communities so they can access available budget for WASH facilities. Where necessary, we invest in access to clean water. To ensure access to soap, sanitary pads and other hygiene products, we try to find sustainable options, such as biodegradable napkins and locally produced pads. We also work with the private sector for production and distribution and with social business partners to train local women as entrepreneurs. Finally, it’s important to say that we make sure that men play a positive role in all our activities; we inform and include them in realising change. In this way, we can achieve sustainable change with the support of the whole community, men and women together.”


What is your wish for the future?

“My dream is to achieve gender equality on a global scale. I believe that ensuring menstrual health for girls and women all over the world, with free access to education, facilities and health products, is a vital step towards female empowerment. “


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