Student Voices
Nov. 04 2015

Touch the Pickle: Demystifying Menstruation Around the World

Puberty is an awkward time no matter where you live. But in many countries, when girls get their period, they are more likely to miss class, making it more difficult for them to do well in school and denying them opportunities in adulthood. Seeking to explore the factors beyond this phenomenon and identify solutions, Sociomedical Sciences Professor Marni Sommer recently convened a conference that brought together experts with global perspectives on issues from stigma to water and sanitation.

Organized in partnership with UNICEF, the Virtual Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in WASH in Schools conference, now in its fourth year, shed light on the myths surrounding menstruation. In Indonesia, many girls believe they have to wash disposable pads by hands—a task made difficult when schools don’t have running water. In India, girls believe they can’t touch or share food or hug family members when they are on their period. An award-winning ad campaign by Proctor and Gamble, “Touch the Pickle,” encourages girls to break the taboos (see video below).

The physical environment is another hurdle. UNICEF estimates that about half of schools in the developing world do not have toilets, and among those that do, many facilities are not specific for girls, who may find it shameful and embarrassing to navigate menstruation in unisex toilets and latrines. Conference attendees were shown photos of toilets and latrines in Nigerian schools that were dysfunctional and in disrepair. In the Solomon Islands, menstruating girls are “allowed to go home” when there is no water in schools. And the experience of girls in Mongolia calls attention to the unique challenges of managing menstruation in cold climates where ice must be melted into water before girls can use a toilet.

Differences between countries are important to take into consideration. For instance, as Erdenechimeg Tserendorj, executive director at the Center for Social Work Excellence in Mongolia noted, a program to incinerate sanitary pads in Kenya would not be effective in her country, where fire is considered sacred.

At least 700 people participated in the conference, most via a virtual online interface. Researchers and advocates presented from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Kenya, and Bangladesh, and questions were submitted from countries reaching from Cameroon and Ghana to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sommer, who studies public health aspects of menstruation in Tanzania and other countries, said the conference has expanded tenfold since when it was first organized in 2012. “There is a growing recognition that addressing menstruation is necessary to advance global gender equality,” she said.

More than a quarter of the world’s population is younger than 14 years, and more than a billion are aged 10 to 19 years. As Sommer wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, “the global population of adolescents is vast and growing.”

Underlining this point, Nora Fyles, head of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, called for increased attention to menstruation as countries work to meet UNESCO goals for equitable access to quality education. “We are succeeding in creating a rich research base about the impacts of poor menstrual hygiene,” Fyles said. “This evidence should continue to inform programs in schools.”

Many countries are already hard at work to improve girls’ experience with menstruation. The government of Uganda, for example, is working to counter the teasing and bullying girls experience—perpetrated by boys and girls alike—when they are on their period. Through a training program, educators are equipped with knowledge and confidence to navigate puberty education in order to create a supportive environment for schoolgirls, with their male peers and teachers as their allies.

“We’ve gotten big and bold with menstrual hygiene management,” said Sarah Fry, senior advisor for Hygiene Programming and School WASH at the nonprofit FHI 360. “We’ve moved from just whispering ‘menstruation’ to national supportive environments.”

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By Michelle Truong,
MPH candidate in Sociomedical Sciences