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Girls in India during a hygiene training as part of the Great WASH Yatra. Himanshu Khagta, WASH United, 2012

(Stockholm, August 27, 2017) – The simple biological fact of menstruation shouldn’t be a barrier to gender equality or stymie women’s and girls’ realization of their human rights, Human Rights Watch and WASH United said today. The organizations released a guide for aid and development groups and others who work with women and girls to address human rights in menstrual hygiene in their programming.

Most women and girls will menstruate every month between menarche and menopause, yet this normal bodily function is still met with silence, taboos, and stigma. Women and girls the world over face numerous challenges in managing their menstruation, which should be a straightforward issue of privacy and health. Pads and other supplies may be unavailable or unaffordable, they may lack access to safe toilet facilities with clean water where they can clean themselves in privacy, and they face discriminatory cultural norms or practices that make it difficult to maintain good menstrual hygiene. Together, these challenges may result in women and girls being denied basic human rights.

“People who make policy and run programs – and even human rights advocates – often don’t fully understand the impact a woman’s monthly period may have on her ability to go about her life if she doesn’t have what she needs to manage it,” said Amanda Klasing, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By breaking the silence around menstruation, women can identify barriers they face in managing it.”

The practitioner’s guide explains how women’s and girls’ ability to manage their menstruation hygienically, and with normalcy and dignity, enables women and girls to enjoy certain human rights. For example, it addresses the rights to education, health, and water and sanitation, and how they relate to menstrual hygiene management. 

For years, human rights organizations have documented how periods, and the poor policy and programmatic support for managing menstruation, have a negative impact on women’s and girls’ human rights. Decisions about the operation of refugee camps, detention centers, schools, and workplaces that affect the way periods are dealt with directly affect human rights. With too little support to handle their periods, women and girls have reported staying home from school, missing work, banishment by families, and humiliating treatment in their communities. People who work in development and aid organizations may see this bad treatment but lack effective tools to address it. The new practitioners guide will help them use a human rights framework to bring these problems to light, and resolve them.

“It’s simple: women and girls have human rights, and they have periods. One should not defeat the other,” said Hannah Neumeyer, head of human rights at WASH United, which works to end the global sanitation and hygiene crisis. “Human rights are negatively impacted when women and girls cannot manage menstruation with dignity, but rights should also be at the heart of any solution.”

Human Rights Watch and WASH United recommend that groups that provide services to women evaluate their programs to determine whether a woman or girl has:
  • Adequate, acceptable, and affordable menstrual management materials;
  • Access to adequate facilities, sanitation, infrastructure, and supplies to enable women and girls to change and dispose of menstrual materials; and
  • Knowledge of the process of menstruation and of options available for menstrual hygiene management.

Practitioners engaged in programming or advocacy related to menstrual management should also:

  • Have an awareness of stigma and harmful practices related to menstruation in the specific cultural context where they are working;
  • Support efforts to change harmful cultural norms and practices that stigmatize menstruation and menstruating women and girls;
  • Address discrimination that affects the ability to deal with menstruation, including for women and girls with disabilities, LBTI and gender non-conforming people, and other at-risk populations; and
  • Be aware of and incorporate human rights principles in their programming and advocacy, including the right to participate in decision-making and to get information.

“Practitioners are at the front lines of combatting period stigma and discrimination,” Klasing said. “This guide will help them tailor services and programs to help women and girls manage menstruation through realizing their rights.”

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