Boys and Girls Together: Menstrual Education for Global Gender Equity
Myths and taboos about menstruation continue to persist despite significant movements to reduce the stigma for girls, and there is still a wide variety of inaccurate information globally. In Burkina Faso, many girls have no information about menstruation before they begin puberty. Girls in Indonesia believe that they cannot wash their hands during menstruation. When girls do not have education about puberty or the resources to manage their periods, they are less likely to engage fully in school and may have trouble participating actively in class, which can negatively impact their confidence and education compared to their male peers.
To contribute to the global effort to demystify menstruation and reduce barriers around menstrual hygiene management that many girls face in school, UNCIEF and Columbia University’s Dr. Marni Sommer organized the 5th Virtual Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in WASH in Schools conference. This year, the annual virtual gathering included over 1,000 participants from more than 50 different countries online and in person in New York City. Participants logged on to the internet and were able to virtually participate and engage with presenters and MHM professionals with the goal of improving school environments for girls and promoting gender equity in education.
This year’s conference included speakers from Nepal, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, India, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, and Indonesia and featured a donor panel. The event also featured a poster session with 15 posters from organizations in Pakistan, Uganda, Senegal, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, and more. On social media, the event and its ideas were trending with the Twitter hashtag #menstruationmatters and #dignityforgirls.
In Indonesia, UNICEF provided support for the development of a comic book that teaches girls and boys about puberty. They also created an animated short film that teaches boys how to be more accepting of a girl’s menstrual cycle when in school, and how to engage and support girls during their menstruation. This is a great way to break menstrual taboos and help reduce the embarrassment and shame that many menstruating girls feel.
In addition to including boys in MHM education, other important topics highlighted during the conference included addressing girls’ MHM needs during humanitarian emergencies. For example, after the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, Oxfam Nepal worked with local NGOs to ensure that school latrines were rebuilt to meet MHM and government standards. This includes ensuring gender-segregated toilets with locks on the inside and dustbins for girls to dispose of used menstrual materials without the embarrassment or teasing from boys.
Given the growing body of formative evidence on MHM In schools, efforts are expanding towards developing interventions and marketing education to girls and boys in creative and innovative ways. Save the Children worked closely with the schoolgirls in El Salvador to design an appropriate intervention. One request from the girls was to have expanded activities during recess, like coloring, so that they could participate without having to be physically active and risk embarrassment from a menstrual leak if they had inadequate menstrual materials. Other innovative approaches include initiatives to engage faith and religious institutions on MHM as was done by researchers and UNICEF in Indonesia, and by the NGO Faith in Water in Uganda.
Despite these advances, challenges still exist. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, MHM policy makers were concerned about saying the word “menstruation” because of ongoing taboos. They decided to present the issue as “girls hygiene,” and the stakeholders were quite willing to talk openly about “menstruation” during the meeting. The first lady of Kyrgyzstan, Raisa Atambayeva, even promoted MHM using a social media platform to bring awareness to the topic.
This year’s conference addressed many of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the sixth goal which advocates for the right to water and sanitation “specifically for the unique needs of girls and women,” and the fifth goal, which seeks to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls. The rights to education and health are also of relevance to MHM, and collaboration across the various sectors is essential to transforming schools for girls. Burkina Faso incorporated MHM into their education sector by promoting equitable access to education for both boys and girls. Researchers from Bolivia used their research as a way to motivate social change and promote gender equity.
As MHM moves forward, researchers must keep in mind the importance of partnerships. Collaboration is essential with both national and local governments, including the WASH, education, health and gender sectors, and numerous actors, such as non-governmental organizations, academics, policy makers, social entrepreneurs, advocates and, of course, girls. As Milka Nyariro, a PhD candidate from McGill stated in her compelling presentation, “MHM is an issue of human rights.”
Danika Comey is a second year MPH candidate in the department of Sociomedical Sciences with a certificate in Infectious Disease Epidemiology.
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