Our co-founder and Executive Director, Danielle Keiser explains the need for common language in the menstrual health sector to achieve greater collective impact. Have something to add to the conversation? Contact us!
Untangling the problem of ‘menstrual hygiene management’
In 2014, WASH United established Menstrual Hygiene Day to draw attention to this neglected issue. For many organizations working in international development, Menstrual Hygiene Day presented a new and exciting opportunity to raise awareness and highlight a critical issue. The past few years saw vibrant and exciting celebrations of May 28 as a day to educate and raise awareness about menstrual hygiene.
However, for those working outside the world of international development, Menstrual Hygiene Day, by nature of its name, created an uncomfortable friction. “Menstrual hygiene says to me that periods are dirty, disgusting and need cleaning up” wrote one concerned advocate. In countries such as the US, Canada and the UK, the word ‘hygiene’, when used alongside the word ‘menstrual’, can be and is often interpreted as a negative and regressive terminology that reinforces the patriarchal history that women’s bodies, reproductive organs and menstruation are shameful, dirty and gross.
What may seem like a harmless development precondition to one, has been alienating and backward to another because it only paints one color of a very vibrant and kaleidoscopic picture about menstruation.
To counter this, people simply began using the word ‘health’ instead of ‘hygiene’ as a way of broadening the lens and neutralising the tone. Health, as such, makes space for a holistic, cross-sector and interdisciplinary approach that allows for multiple approaches and priorities beyond hygienic management.
As anyone who menstruates can testify, menstruation is not just about the hygienic management of the period. Product-centric or hardware-focused solutions – such as handing out pads or building girl-friendly sanitation facilities – are great ways to address immediate needs but simply do not pry deep enough to address the root of many of the challenges surrounding menstruation.
More than just a biological function to manage, menstruation has deep roots in societal norms, beliefs and taboos that are better aligned with health – be it physical, psychological or community health – than hygiene. If hygiene refers to “conditions and practices that help to maintain health and prevent the spread of diseases” (WHO), let’s come together on what unites us all – maintaining health.
To propel all the work happening around menstruation forward, it is imperative that we employ a broad and inclusive term that everyone can get behind.
Why collective impact needs a common language
The current WHO definition of health, describes it as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The development of the Menstrual Health Hub is an attempt to bring all the different strands of work happening together and facilitate a concerted action to begin framing work under the umbrella of ‘menstrual health’.
This helps unite our work, break down barriers, make our work more accessible to others working in the same menstrual space and thus accelerate progress. Menstrual health is an encompassing term that includes both menstrual hygiene management (MHM) as well as the broader systemic factors that link menstruation with health, well-being, gender, education, equity, empowerment and rights (FSG, 2016).
A unified approach to a complex issue
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation commissioned a 2016 report by FSG that identified the need for a platform focused on the broader field of menstrual health – not just MHM – to help bridge cross-sector efforts, streamline reliable information, and establish a sound evidence base around the topic.
A unified approach would be futile without the clear identification of common goals. We are all working towards the common vision of creating lasting change in the nascent world of menstrual health. Whether it be in the realm of research, education, policy, or product, all things happening in the menstrual field seek to provide lasting solutions to a common experience.
Therefore, everything that we as the menstrual health community do should be aligned to help make menstruation as manageable as possible for those who bleed monthly, everywhere. This means actively working to address barriers such as affordability, access and safety.
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