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Observing World Menstrual Hygiene Day: Understanding the struggles through data

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Old Delhi, India-Oct 7 2023: selling packets of sanitary pads from local company at Sadar Bazar Market Selling packets of sanitary pads from a local company at Sadar Bazar Market, in Delhi, India. Photo: Shutterstock

On May 28, we mark World Menstrual Hygiene Day, a time to spotlight the importance of menstrual health, which must be recognized as the complete physical, mental, and social well-being of women and girls in relation to the menstrual cycle. Menstrual hygiene is the ability of women and adolescent girls to manage their menstruation in a hygienic manner, with dignity, using clean menstrual absorbents, and having access to facilities for changing in privacy, as well as for washing their bodies and hands.

The importance of menstrual health and hygiene is increasingly recognized as an integral element in the promotion of public health, the advancement of gender equality, and the safeguarding of human rights, well aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Target 6.2.  

However, women, particularly in low-income countries, often encounter numerous obstacles in maintaining menstrual health and hygiene.  These challenges include the lack of appropriate menstrual materials, inadequate access to private facilities for changing and handwashing, and restrictions on participation in everyday activities, such as attending school or work. Recent inclusion of menstrual health and hygiene questions in household surveys, such as the UNICEF MICS, and Demographic and Health Surveys, sheds light on these issues.

For instance, while over 90 percent of women in 46 out of 51 surveyed countries use suitable menstrual materials (sanitary pads, tampons, menstrual cups, cloth, or cotton wool), there are still five countries where more than 10 percent of women lack access to these basic necessities. Instead, these women only use toilet paper, underwear alone or nothing.  Experts point out that poor hygiene management can lead to health risks including urinary or reproductive tract infections.  

It is essential to provide women and girls with adequate facilities and services that support them in changing menstrual materials and maintaining personal hygiene, such as hand and body washing, with privacy and security during their menstrual cycles.

These facilities should offer a level of privacy that respects their individual needs, protecting them from undue attention and disturbances, and ensuring their safety from any form of harm.  In rural areas of Niger, for instance, fewer than 50% of women have access to private spaces for managing their menstrual hygiene. Furthermore, rural women are less likely to have access to such private facilities compared to their urban counterparts in most countries with data. 

Menstrual health encompasses not only the physical well-being of women but also their right to participate fully in all facets of life—be it civil, economic, social, or political—without experiencing ostracism, constraints, discrimination, coercion, or violence due to menstrual issues.  In Chad and Central African Republic, more than 30% of women and girls did not participate in school, work and/or social activities during menstruation periods.

The Gender Database offers an opportunity to delve deeper into these statistics, but data gaps still remain. Education on menstruation is essential for girls to manage their menstrual health, yet information on awareness of first menstruation is scarce, with only two countries reporting data on this subject. Lack of data masks underlying problems, which may exist even in high-income countries. 

To address these challenges effectively, we must enhance data availability and deepen our understanding of the barriers faced by women and girls in the realm of menstrual health and hygiene.

Haruna Kashiwase

Consultant, Development Data Group, World Bank

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