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Advocacy in Action: Tackling an Overlooked WASH Challenge

Editor’s Note: This guest post is authored by Danielle Keiser, social media strategist at WASH United. The Berlin-based NGO harnesses the power of fun-to-play educational games, sport stars and positive communications to bring about attitude and behavior change around sanitation and hygiene. In her post, Danielle describes the genesis of the first ever Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated this past May. To find out more about the day, view the infographic here.

Until recently, considerations of menstrual hygiene management (MHM) have been largely overlooked in the general WASH agenda. Why? Is it because menstruation is strictly a “girls and women’s issue”? Or that boys and men are to a large extent unaware or uninvolved in discussions about menstrual hygiene? Or is it that menstruation is such a clandestine topic that makes people too uncomfortable to even talk about?

The average woman menstruates for 3,000 days in her life and during these days, she needs certain WASH conditions to maintain her dignity -- access to a safe and private toilet, access to clean, hygienic and absorbent materials, clean water and soap for washing, and adequate collection and safe disposal of the soiled materials. While these may be the physical conditions needed to ensure good menstrual hygiene, MHM as such is predicated on the idea that factual information about menstruation and menstrual hygiene practices must be widely understood, free from myths and unfounded taboos. 

What happens when these conditions are lacking, or don’t exist at all? Girls can drop out school. Their health can suffer. They can miss workdays. In essence, they can fall gravely behind.

An increasing number of organizations across the world are working to improve the lives of girls and women around this issue. Some focus on breaking taboos and banning traditional practices, such as the Nepal Fertility Care Center, while others such as Sustainable Health Enterprises in Rwanda, create locally-produced, sustainable sanitary pads.

And on May 28th, 2014, for the first time ever, 155 of these organizations joined forces and partnered to celebrate the first ever Menstrual Hygiene Day (MH Day).

How it all started 

In order to tackle the ‘private’ nature of menstruation in captivating way, WASH United wanted to create a Menstruation Extravaganza – a time and space to address menstrual taboos by providing factual guidance and positive information around menstruation. Thus, May MENSTRAVAGANZA was born, a social media campaign in 2013 that turned out to be wildly popular.

From all this positive feedback, it became clear to us that there was a need for an open advocacy platform around MHM that would bring together organizations from the diverse sectors working in the area. Wouldn’t it be great to create a global awareness day dedicated exclusively to putting the spotlight on menstrual hygiene and get the conversation around menstruation started?

Let’s do it!

The more partners we could get on board, the bigger the movement could become.  And by autumn, we were on track. We had over 25 partners, giving us a sign that we were moving in the right direction. However, it was really in the five months leading up to May 28, 2014 that the word of MH Day spread like wildfire. The intense interest people had in MH Day reinforced the fact that we were filling a very important void in MHM advocacy.

Why an open advocacy platform?

A diversity of actors – men and women alike - helps forge a strong, holistic movement that captures the different perspectives inherent in the complexities of MHM.

In our communications and outreach materials, we strive to mirror the open and collaborative nature of MH Day itself. “28 Conversations”, a guide to help start the conversation about menstruation in smaller, rural communities was collaboratively developed with Indian partner EcoFemme. And when the producers of the new short film “Monthlies” contacted us about coordinating the world premiere with Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, we were thrilled to give our partners another tool for raising awareness.

On the day itself

We were ecstatic to see a wide range of activities happening all over the world; the celebrations of MH Day were just as diverse as the MHM coalition itself. MH Day partners took genuine ownership over their individual activities and organized 31 events in 18 countries. A selection included:  

  • In Tharaka Nithi in Kenya, the county government along with a 30-partner coalition put on an event for 10,000 attendees that included entertainment, speeches by dignitaries, and the free distribution of pads, panties, and soap.
  • In Delhi, India, a multi-stakeholder discussion on MHM, expert consultations, and an exhibition were part of a national-level event led by PATH, Azadi, Water Aid, and WASH United.
  • In Nepal, the Nepal Fertility Care Center (NFCC) established a national menstrual hour, both in school and on radio stations, giving students and the public the chance to have their questions about menstruation and menstrual taboos answered.

Other activities that took place across the globe can be found in the 2014 MH Day Event Report.

What’s next?

The first MH Day exceeded our expectations, but was not without its challenges.

A major challenge we faced was the need to justify the use of the word ‘hygiene’ in Menstrual Hygiene Day. A few individuals coming from menstrual activism backgrounds felt that the word ‘hygiene’ carried negative connotations and reinforced the myth that women and girls are ‘dirty’ during their periods. In many developing countries, we explained, it is a matter of having access to certain WASH conditions to maintain hygiene, and thus dignity. We thoughtfully addressed this misconception and, in some cases, even garnered their support.

Another challenge had to do with capacity and scale. Because of the ever-increasing number and involvement of partners, we found it difficult to keep track of how and where events were developing. In the future, it might be a good idea to have regional coordinators to help organize this process. 

Finally, despite the good intentions of MH Day, we came to realize that talking about menstruation makes many people uncomfortable only because their views are colored by long-standing societal stigmas. All the more reason to keep talking and break the silence!

If you want to support the movement or learn more, get in touch with Danielle Keiser at or sign up for the MH Day newsletter.

John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates. John describes a session he chaired at the World Justice Forum IV in July that explored the nexus between water challenges and rule of law — two areas often seen as representing separate development sectors. In the post, he explains how water solutions and rule of law can be mutually reinforcing and cites ongoing projects in which communities and their governments are working together to address challenges in WASH. A version of this post originally appeared here

I had the honor of chairing a session on Sustainable Water Solutions and the Rule of Law at the World Justice Forum IV in The Hague. During the vigorous two hour dialogue, it became clear that the street between water and rule of law runs both ways: A solid rule of law foundation will likely enhance the sustainability and scalability of water programs by increasing collaboration with and leadership from governments, and effective water programs will fortify rule of law by strengthening the social contract between citizens and their governments.

I spent years implementing democracy and governance programs in Africa on behalf of the U.S. government, and jumped at the opportunity to build this bridge between that world and my current water portfolio — two seemingly distinct development sectors. In framing the panel, I positioned rule of law — broadly defined, as in Wikipedia’s “authority and influence of law in society” — as an enabler, as a catalyst, of sustainable, institutionalized progress toward all global development challenges. On the flipside, I also see more progress on water challenges as one of many ways to strengthen the rule of law. For example, the most interesting question asked during the opening plenary of the World Justice Forum was “Is there a primary school for rule of law, or does one have to wait until graduate school to learn about it?” I assert that there is indeed a primary school for the rule of law: a village water committee anywhere in the world. The first experience many people — especially women — have in the developing world with rule of law and with participatory democracy is via their participation on local committees designed to identify and sustainably address local challenges. Tip O’Neill, a famous American politician, said “All politics is local.” Well, so are development challenges and solutions, especially those related to water. So that village water committee in rural India is a primary school for rule of law. An HIV support group in South Africa is a primary school for rule of law, solving its own community challenges, often alongside its government. A women’s neighborhood group focused on sanitation in Nairobi or Mexico City is a primary school for rule of law, as are local school boards, housing committees, and the like.

Water challenges at local, national, and transboundary levels all offer individuals an opportunity to strengthen the social contract between themselves and their governments. To achieve universal coverage of safe drinking water on the planet, in the compressed timeframe for which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy advocated at the Forum, governments must work hand-in-hand with their constituents.

Here are a handful of rule of law/water solutions underway, and worth tracking and supporting:

  • Community water boards by the thousands are becoming stronger throughout Latin America with the help of la Fundación Avina, making safe water more accessible to millions of Latin Americans, and at the same time creating more open, democratic societies.
  • Rule of law is making water more accessible and safer across the globe: e.g., cities are adding rainwater harvesting to building codes in India, and municipal development plans are incorporating community sanitation facilities in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
  • The Nile Basin Initiative continues to strengthen the capacity of the Nile’s riparian states to stay ahead of the water conflict predicted by many for the region.
  • Water For People’s Everyone Forever effort focuses first and foremost on the interaction between citizens and their governments, with the international community playing a catalytic role; this will eventually obviate the need for any outside assistance.
  • The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership attracts Finance Ministers to its High Level Meeting every two years. Stronger political will makes it possible for those Finance Ministers to do what they already want to do: increase budgets and strengthen policies for water in their countries by making and meeting tangible, time-bound commitments.
  • Civil society organizations across the developing world are now using this toolkit “How to Campaign on Water and Sanitation Issues During an Election” to make sure that elected leaders have committed to tackling water challenges long before their terms in office. This toolkit should be used in every election tracked by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

The water challenges across the globe are grave. But they are solvable, and being solved by communities and governments as I write. My ambition is that rule of law and water communities will find more ways to work together across a number of platforms, and that both communities will emerge stronger from those collaborative efforts.

African Ministers' Council on Water

The African Ministers' Council on Water, an initiative of the African Union, has announced a three-year, $2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build its capacity for sanitation policy development, monitoring and evaluation coverage, and WASH-related advocacy across the continent.

Awarded through the foundation's global development program, the grant will be used to provide training and technical assistance in four countries working to develop and adopt effective sanitation and hygiene policies and plans; organize the fourth AfricaSan conference as a mechanism for tracking progress, refining targets, and enabling peer support and advocacy for implementation of the 2008 eThekwini Declaration and AfricaSan Action Plan; and help countries fulfill their obligations to report to the AU.

"We face tremendous challenges of diminishing access to clean water and safe sanitation," said AMCOW executive secretary Bai Mass Taal. "AMCOW is committed to working with partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce this scourge and improve access to safe sanitation, thereby achieving our overall goal of decreasing poverty and disease in the continent."

Source: “African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW) Gets US$2 Million Grant to Improve Sanitation Coverage in Africa.” African Ministers' Council on Water Press Release 12/18/12.

John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH seminar at World Water Week on Wednesday, August 29th, in Stockholm, we decided to pose three questions to the panel’s esteemed group of foundation and NGO leaders to give you a preview of their conversation. We will post a new interview each day this week so check back daily or sign up for e-mail updates. In this post, John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates, discusses the need for stronger political will to solve the WASH crisis, as well as the link between WASH and nutrition. In yesterday’s post, John Thomas examined the role that philanthropic investment can play in cultivating innovative WASH solutions.

1. Describe what your organization does and what your role is.

WASH Advocates is a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative entirely dedicated to helping solve the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge. Our mission is to raise awareness of WASH issues, and convert that heightened awareness into increased financial and political capital throughout the developing world.

The only way the world will achieve universal coverage of safe drinking water and sanitation is if every government (at national, provincial, and municipal levels) prioritizes WASH for all of its citizens. As the CEO, I look for ways to influence WASH-related public policy and country budgets, and I look for advocacy allies from civil society groups, philanthropists, corporations, and faith communities across the globe.

2. Tell us one provocative question or issue you hope to tackle on the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH panel, and why.

People interested in solving the global WASH challenge often ask “Why is there still a WASH problem in 2012?” A recurring answer from many in the sector is: “…because of a lack of political will,” but then the conversation dies since no one really knows what that means. The question I’d like to see this panel tackle is “How does one create political will in each developing country with high rates of WASH poverty, and how can the international donor community help catalyze and convert that strengthened political will into stronger policies and increased budgets for WASH in those countries?”

WASH Advocates works with a number of global, regional, and local partners around the world who are encouraging their own governments to increasingly prioritize WASH. We are looking for ways to strengthen the capacity of country-level civil society groups to work more closely with their elected leaders, because the ‘end game’ for the global WASH challenge is not what we in the international donor community can do, but rather what public sector leaders in developing countries can accomplish sustainably with their own taxpayer resources.

Working with governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is often contentious and time-consuming. However, WASH Advocates contends that the quickest way to true scale in the WASH sector is to involve governments from day one of the design phase of any sizeable WASH programs. This will lead to increased program sustainability in the short-term, and to scale (not just scalability) over the long run.

3. What are you most looking forward to about Stockholm and/or World Water Week?

WASH Advocates is attending World Water Week 2012 to explore the myriad connections between political leaders and WASH across the globe, both in developed and developing countries. Advocacy is not (yet) sexy, and we will be looking for ways to make WASH advocacy more tangible and attractive to civil society leaders, WASH program experts, and the international donor community.

Every political leader anywhere in the developed and developing world wants to prioritize WASH in his or her budget; it is not difficult to garner support for this issue. Our job at WASH Advocates is to help change the political equation, e.g., to minimize the political risk that political leaders must incur if they prioritize WASH among many other equally important development challenges. Political leaders are motivated to act if they hear about a challenge from their own people, and if they understand how the challenge is solvable.

During World Water Week, I am also particularly interested in the linkages between WASH and under-nutrition in children in developing countries. It is under-recognized that unsafe water and inadequate sanitation cause approximately half of childhood under-nutrition. This year’s World Water Week theme will facilitate opportunities for the WASH and nutrition sectors to discuss more integrated programming. 

Braimah Apambire, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH seminar at World Water Week next Wednesday, August 29th, in Stockholm, we decided to pose three questions to the panel’s esteemed group of foundation and NGO leaders to give you a preview of their conversation. We will post a new interview each day this week so check back daily or sign up for e-mail updates. In this post, Braimah Apambire, who leads the WASH Initiative at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, speaks about the importance of advocacy for the WASH sector. In yesterday’s post, David Rothschild discussed funder-grantee relationships.

1. Describe what your organization does and what your role is.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation was created in 1944 by international business pioneer Conrad N. Hilton, who founded Hilton Hotels and left his fortune to help the world's disadvantaged and vulnerable people. The Foundation currently conducts strategic initiatives in five priority areas: providing safe water, ending chronic homelessness, preventing substance abuse, caring for vulnerable children, and extending Conrad Hilton's support for the work of Catholic Sisters. Following selection by an independent international jury, the Foundation annually awards the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize to a nonprofit organization doing extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering. From its inception, the Foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants and in 2011 distributed $82 million to organizations in the U.S. and throughout the world. The Foundation's current assets are approximately $2 billion. For more information, please visit our web site.

Since 1990, the Foundation has awarded more than $114 million in grants toward programs in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, India and Mexico. These programs have provided access to safe water for more than 2 million people. The Foundation’s five-year strategy focuses on safe water access, as part of the broader WASH+ (water, sanitation, hygiene, and improved livelihoods) approach, for the poorest and hardest-to-reach populations. Central to the Foundation’s grantmaking approach are long-term partnerships and leveraging resources. Key initiatives of our current work include supporting sustainable and scalable water access, strengthening the enabling environment for WASH interventions, and disseminating and adopting sector-wide knowledge.

I lead the Foundation’s water initiative and spearheaded the development of the Foundation’s strategic plan for WASH programming in Africa, Mexico, and India.

2. Tell us one provocative question or issue you hope to tackle on the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH panel, and why. 

My hope is that participants will get to know the importance of and opportunities for advocacy in the WASH sector. Many people see advocacy as influencing Congress to increase USG funding to the WASH sector. However, advocacy goes beyond that to include engaging local governments, civic and faith societies, corporations, philanthropists, grasstops and grassroots about the issue at hand and how it can be solved.

Why advocacy? Foundations can’t solve the global WASH crisis through direct service delivery by their grantees alone — advocacy is needed to increase the amount and effectiveness of WASH grantmaking.

3. What are you most looking forward to about Stockholm and/or World Water Week?

Networking with colleagues.

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