Imagine that you’re a woman experiencing a menstrual cycle with no privacy to manage it, no one to talk to, and no clean materials to manage your period with dignity.
In South Africa, and in many poor countries around the world, menstruation is rarely talked about, and can be a source of stress and embarrassment, as well as pose a safety risk for girls and women. In addition to the roughly 2.4 billion people who lack access to basic sanitation, and the nearly 1 billion who must defecate in the open, there is a need to call attention to the often taboo topic of menstruation.
In many low-resource settings, women must be resourceful and use recycled or old cloth as the primary tool for period management, though women and girls have also been known to use mattress stuffing, old rags, sheets of school workbooks, even dried leaves and ash.
Availability of sanitation facilities and disposal systems for menstrual care products are severely lacking in many developing countries. These factors—along with a need to manage pain from menstrual cramps, a lack of access to menstrual care products, or infections related to poor hygiene—may contribute to school absenteeism and dropout rates. According to one report in Uganda, girls in rural parts of the country miss up to eight days of school each term because of their periods.
In an effort to improve safety, sanitation, and waste systems for women and girls with greater consciousness of their menstrual care needs, PATH staff gave women in three communities in Durban, South Africa disposable cameras to document their experience managing their periods. This participatory research method, known as Photovoice, allows community members to capture behaviors and cultural values that might otherwise be lost to research staff.
Following are some of these women’s responses when they were asked to share their struggles managing this deeply personal issue:
These challenges exacerbate the already difficult circumstances surrounding menstruation. And the implications are more than just personal. Disposable pads can block city sewer systems and the social, cultural, and physical constraints menstrual health creates for poor women and girls perpetuate their second-class status in society. The result is a culture of silence that forces many to cope in isolation.
Let’s shatter the taboos around menstruation. At PATH we are working on sanitation solutions that allow women to manage menstruation safely and with dignity.
- Nancy Muller is a senior program officer with the Devices and Tools Program at PATH.