Advocacy in Action: Tackling an Overlooked WASH Challenge

Editors 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.

Advocacy in Action: Tackling an Overlooked WASH Challenge

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 danielle.keiser@wash-united.org or sign up for the MH Day newsletter.