By Sandy Garçon, Senior Advocacy Manager, PSI
In case you missed it, the novel coronavirus has officially changed the way human beings behave. COVID-19 has spurred travel restrictions, self-isolation and self-quarantine, working from home—for those with both means and opportunity—and even people stockpiling toilet paper to the point where they probably won’t need to buy it for the next decade.
What psychologists tell us about #toiletpapergate is that hoarding bathroom necessities is a normal reaction to a situation that seems out of our control. As Mary Alvord, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine, puts it “we all eat, and we all sleep and we all poop. It’s a basic need to take care of ourselves.”
This also brings to mind another essential need that we too often ignore, and in worse cases stigmatize—menstruation.
You’re probably thinking, “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We have more pressing concerns.” Just as we all “eat,” “sleep,” and “poop,” people will continue to menstruate during this outbreak and well after we (hopefully) pass this pandemic.
There is no remote option.
Menstruation is a normal biological process experienced by half of the world’s population for a significant part of their lives, including women, girls, trans, nonbinary, intersex, and agender people who menstruate.
It’s not just something our mothers, sisters and partners deal with once a month—and if my vote counts for anything, I say we banish the term “time of the month” altogether. It is at the very core of sexual and reproductive health and rights for people who menstruate.
Millions of people who menstruate struggle to manage their monthly menstruation safely, comfortably and with dignity. Menstruating girls and women face inadequate access to toilets and water and may lack the most basic materials needed for managing blood flow, such as menstrual products, underwear and soap. Privacy is often scarce, and when toilets are available, they often lack locks, functioning doors, lighting and separation by gender. Also, strong menstrual taboos may restrict the movements and behaviors of adolescent girls and women, hindering their ability to attend school, work, or participate in daily life.
And we know that lack of proper menstrual health management may lead to greater risks of infections, discomfort, and negative impacts on mental wellbeing.
It’s not just a women’s and girls’ issue.
In the same way that pandemics affect all us, menstruation is part of the reality for women, girls and transgender men the world over. Taboos associated with menstruation, combined with an overall culture of silence around the topic, limit the ability of people who menstruate to fully and equally participate in society, undermining their overall status and self-esteem as well as the development of families and communities. Improved menstrual health and hygiene will not only benefit those who menstruate, but entire societies across generations.
With current measures to contain COVID-19 potentially extending into the summer, product availability could be affected by store closures and stock-outs. Sadly, this is already a reality for women and girls living in poor and marginalized communities, emergency and humanitarian contexts, incarceration facilities, have special needs or disabilities and/or facing other barriers.
Where do we go from here?
So, when the current storm passes, will we fall back into old habits of ignoring dire issues that are right in front of us? Or will we do what is necessary to support those who are most marginalized and lack access to their most basic needs?
Gender equality will not be achieved unless menstrual health is addressed by all relevant sectors through appropriate policies, programming and funding. The sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) community of practice should make menstrual health an integral part of SRHR across the spectrum of information sharing, awareness raising, behavior change, service delivery, product distribution, outreach, advocacy, etc., and design and fund programs accordingly. Programs should be designed with and for (young) people who menstruate. In return, menstrual health can help strengthen and provide new insights for SRHR programming.
The WASH community of practice should tap into creative new solutions to ensure accessible and affordable menstrual products, appropriate water and sanitation facilities for girls and women, and comprehensive MH education including SRHR.
Addressing menstrual health effectively requires a multi-tiered strategy that combines cross-sectoral programming, research and advocacy. Include specific budget lines for menstrual health in the initiatives you fund in addition to mainstreaming it in the cross-cutting plans. Funding is needed not only to support and scale programming but also to solidify the research and evidence base.
Only then, will we be on the road to fulfilling the promise of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and other commitments to millions of women, girls and all people who menstruate.