The 1st Global Collaborative Meeting on Menstrual Health at the WHO: Reflections from My Experience

Guest post by Dr. Ephraim Kisangala, Commonwealth Scholar 2018/2019; Women Deliver Young Leader 2016

This was the first time I received an invitation to attend a high-level meeting on menstrual health. All my previous involvement in menstrual health related activities was usually because I was part of the team organizing or designing the program. My journey on menstrual hygiene management started in 2014 when I led a team of medical students in Africa to commemorate the 1st Menstrual Hygiene Day. Being a young man advocating for ‘something’ that has for long been largely regarded as a private and ‘girls’ only issue, literally jumping many hurdles including stigma.

Therefore, having a reputable body like World Health Organisation (WHO) host such a meeting to discuss how menstruation can be systematically included on her agenda was in itself a strong statement to the entire world that menstruation is a public health issue that would require everyone’s involvement. This is partly why I couldn’t hide the excitement as I waited for when this rare opportunity of discussing menstrual health at the WHO headquarters would start.

This two-day meeting that was held from 23rd to 24th August, 2018 was organized around five major thematic sessions and spiced with a well-attended lunchtime seminar where we freely shared why menstrual health in adolescents should be included in WHO’s already crowded agenda and what special contributions WHO could make. One of the objectives of the meeting was to review the recommendations from Gender and Rights Advisory Panel (GAP) of the WHO on developing a portfolio of work in the area of menarche, menstruation, menstrual hygiene and menstrual health.

Image: WHO

Every part of my time in Geneva during this meeting was memorable.

I was particularly excited when the aspect of the need to involve boys and men in menstrual health was repeatedly highlighted in most themes during the sessions of where we wanted to be in next 10 years. This helped me to keep thinking about what my own experience as a boy growing up in Africa would have been if I had not been taught about menstruation. From as early as 11 years of age, we were taught by our parents about what menstruation was and why we needed to support our sisters whenever we noticed they were having their periods.

My mother did this mainly because of the challenges she experienced as a student at school. She would get very painful and heavy periods which the teachers, pupils at school, parents and even the health workers at the local health center could not manage. She was usually discouraged from using pain killers and therefore always cursed the days she would be in her periods.

This was not helped by the boys who were the majority in her school that always bullied her until she was transferred to a girls’ only school. Of course, the change of school happened long after she had been traumatized. Even when everything we were taught then at home on menstruation was based on her own experiences and perceptions, a greater proportion of the information helped us to be supportive to our sisters both at home and at school.

As I reflected, I kept wondering how many more girls would enjoy the support, care, empathy, understanding of their condition if their parents including fathers, brothers and friends were accurately taught about menstruation.

This meeting came up with among many other things recommendations for developing a universal training manual and guidelines on menstrual health which I am very confident will be used to teach boys and other members of the society (including health workers) to be fully supportive to their female counterparts during menstruation. This will obviously help reduce stigma, lack of knowledge/ understanding, low self – esteem and menstrual health related challenges.

I also enjoyed the moments we shared and interacted with various experts from different countries with interest in menstrual health. This research meeting brought together experts from different fields such as academia, governments, international organisations and researchers. My strength as a male advocate for menstrual health was further propelled after noticing the strides that have been moved since the campaign on improving menstrual health start more that 15 years ago.

Lastly, I am more than grateful to Women Deliver for nominating me and the WHO for inviting me to attend this first ever Global Collaborative Research on Menstrual Health. I was very much moved by the excellent exemplary leadership during the meeting. The simplicity, compassion and humility of the WHO team led by Dr. Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli was amazing. As a young person who attended this meeting, I can confidently say that menstrual health is a global issue that needs everybody’s involvement.

About the Guest blogger:

Ephraim Kisangala is a medical Doctor who is very passionate about youth health. He is the president of the Federation of African Medical Students’ Associations (FAMSA) 2014/2015. Ephraim is also currently volunteering with Irise international as Assistant Projects and Research Coordinator. He also volunteers with the China Uganda Friendship Hospital (CUFH) as a medical doctor. He is a member of the National Menstrual Hygiene Steering Committee, a committee set up to formulate policies and program around menstrual hygiene management in Uganda.