My firstborn daughter just had her first period. While it is true, she reached out, first, to her mum, we discussed this milestone moment together as a family the same day. It was neither awkward nor embarrassing. Both I and her mum have discussed puberty and menstruation with her for the last few years.
Why? Because we want our daughter to know that there is nothing to fear or to be ashamed of. We want her to know that we are here to support her through this change, and give her everything she needs – sanitary pads and tampons, pain relief medication and hot-water bottles, a cuddle if she needs one, or space if she prefers. We want her to feel confident and in control. It is her right.
And, yet, I’m all too aware that conversations about menstruation are, in too many families around the world, taboo, not least in Afghanistan.
Ahead of Menstrual Hygiene Day, UNICEF Afghanistan (ACO) conducted a U-Report poll asking girls about their experience of menstruation. Of the more than 180,000 U-Reporters ACO boasts, unusually, we only received 3,000 responses. We received over 100 angry messages criticizing us for asking such shameful questions.
- - Around half of the girls told us they started menstruation without knowing what was happening to them or why…
- - 38% of the girls polled said they felt sad when they have their period; 18% felt dirty…
- - 30% told us they have missed school due to menstruation -- between 2 to 5 days at least each month…
- Imagine the toll on these girls’ mental health as they agonize over why they’re bleeding. Or their stress and shame at feeling dirty? Or their frustration at losing 2-5 days of school each month – 24 days a year, 6 months by the end of high school.
Roughly 800 million girls and women menstruate every day. And still, in 2021, in too many countries and cultures, there’s so much stigma attached to this natural, biological function that girls often dread their period because they are cruelly ostracized.
In Nepal, India, Indonesia, and parts of Nigeria, girls are banished to huts while they bleed. In some tribes in Uganda, women are banned from drinking cow’s milk because of the belief that it would contaminate the whole herd. Elsewhere, girls can either be forced to bathe, or forbidden from bathing. Others are not allowed to cook in case they taint the meal.
COVID-19 has exacerbated these challenges. Countless girls, and their families, have been forced into poverty, and now face difficult choices on what to spend meager resources on – sanitary pads or food and other household necessities. As the pandemic lurches and lingers, this is set to worsen.
It strikes me that even as the global development community, including UNICEF, campaigns vigorously to enroll more girls in school – and rightly invests heavily in this critical effort -- so, too, are we failing to address the root causes of damaging social norms that prevent girls attending school and cause them to drop out.
So, their learning opportunities are diminished. They are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. They are less likely to excel in the workforce and earn good wages. Or have a voice in their communities. And they’re less likely to instill in their own children a love of learning. In short, the cycle of inequality that holds girls and women back is perpetuated.
By failing to tackle this inequality, we are preventing girls and women from reaching their full potential.
Am I exaggerating if I call this a development emergency?
While I agree that procuring and distributing hygiene kits is an important part of UNICEF’s programming for MHM, we must also build more menstrual hygiene facilities in schools. And we must invest more, much more, in changing mindsets at every level of society, and in every country.
That mindset change has to start in UNICEF’s strategic vision for girls’ empowerment. Just as we have mainstreamed gender across programming so, too, I’d suggest that we do the same for menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Let it be a cross-cutting function. Let us mainstream MHM into all our programs so that, once and for all, there is a concerted effort to address this inequity.
On this global Menstrual Hygiene Day, ahead of a new Strategic Plan, and the new change strategy on gender-transformative programming, let us be bold and commit to a situational analysis of how Country Offices are programming for menstrual hygiene, what results in we have achieved for girls, and how we can practically and sustainably change the reality for the next generation of girls – whoever they are, wherever they live.