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Celebrating World Menstrual Hygiene Day – Asa Torkelsson

Investing in menstrual health and hygiene is crucial for promoting good health, gender equality, and ensuring that women and girls can participate fully in society.

Image by Burin Kul/Pixabay.

Menstrual health is a human rights issue — not just a health one.

Each of us has a right to bodily autonomy. The ability to care for your body while menstruating is an essential part of this fundamental freedom.

Yet an estimated 500 million women and girls lack access to menstrual products and adequate facilities for menstrual health.

Menstruation is too often treated as a taboo topic and this stigma is pronounced in emergencies, where the challenges of managing menstruation are amplified.

Asia and the Pacific is especially vulnerable to climate change, with droughts, floods, and extreme storms that will continue to devastate critical infrastructure.

In disaster responses across the region, menstrual health is under-resourced, with dire consequences for the health of women and girls.

Poor menstrual health and hygiene has been observed to undercut fundamental rights – including the right to work and go to school.

It worsens social and economic inequalities. Insufficient resources to manage menstruation, as well as patterns of exclusion and shame, undermine human dignity.

Gender inequality, extreme poverty, humanitarian crises and harmful traditions can amplify deprivation and stigma.

May 28, 2023 is Menstrual Hygiene Day, and the theme this year is “Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030”.

The day is observed on the 28th day of the fifth month of the year because menstrual cycles average 28 days in length, and menstruations last an average of five days each month.

There is wide agreement on what people need for good menstrual health. The essential elements: safe, acceptable and reliable supplies to manage menstruation; privacy to change materials; facilities to safely and privately wash; and information to make informed choices, are key.

Comprehensive approaches that combine education with infrastructure and with products and efforts to tackle stigma are most successful in achieving good menstrual health. Comprehensive sexuality education early on in the ages can also help.

Global and national health and development policies should prioritize menstrual health, with investment reflecting the important role it plays in human rights, public health, gender equality and sustainable development.

Schools, workplaces and public institutions and public spaces should ensure that people can manage menstruation with comfort and dignity.

Targeted policies should seek to eliminate period poverty, in which low-income women and girls struggle to afford menstrual products and have limited access to water and sanitation services.

In emergency response plans, menstruation needs to be taken into account, to ensure women are not at elevated risk of diseases and infections.

Before disasters hit, plans need to be in place so that the supplies are distributed or accessible in a way that is sensitive to the needs of women and girls, while working on destigmatising menstruation, addressing harmful social norms, and making sure that communities have accurate information about menstrual health. 

Forward-thinking governments recognise that investing in menstrual health and hygiene is crucial for promoting good health, gender equality, and ensuring that women and girls can participate fully in society.

To do this, we must listen to the needs of women and girls whose voices are central to disaster planning, humanitarian action and resource allocation.

The Malaysian Context

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is celebrating 50 years in Malaysia, working side by side with the government to expand sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Over this period, we commend the Malaysian government on its commitment to not only create social awareness regarding mensturation, but to also seeking to ensure that hygiene products are made available in public spaces, institutions, government offices, and soon, hopefully throughout the private sector.

However, as in many places around the world, menstruation still remains quite a taboo subject in Malaysia.

Good and creative steps have been taken, including the Malaysian Human Resource Ministry’s recent encouragement of government-linked and private companies to implement menstrual leave as well as considerations to legislate it upon feasibility studies being done.

Menstrual leave not only pushes back against various taboos around periods, but also shifts the future of work for women — allowing them to feel safe, secure, and respected in workplaces.

With increased investments in Comprehensive Sexuality Education for both children and adults — Malaysia can achieve a more comprehensive and holistic public buy-in on the subject matter as well as increase the awareness of its linkages to health, productivity, reproduction and quality of life.

This can also help to put an end to instances of period shaming in schools occurring and ensure that women and girls will not be marginalised in educational and public institutions. 

The affordability of sanitary products still need to be addressed. Malaysia is also one of the very few countries in the world that has worked to abolish the “Pink Tax” on female hygiene products in 2018.

As much as this has been key to ensuring that prices of sanitary products remain affordable – there is still a need to ensure that there is a more sustainable and even more affordable supply and explore the use of innovative products — especially during times of economic contraction, rising prices and of course emergencies such as natural disasters.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns and the socio-economic fallouts – access to menstrual hygiene products became quite an issue, primarily impacting economically marginalised communities.

Leveraging on social media, activists, NGOs, and CSOs created mass awareness on the plight of those marginalised by period poverty and helped to ensure that emergency aid included menstrual hygiene supplies.

Under Budget 2022, the allocation of RM10 million towards providing free sanitary pads to 130,000 students from B40 households is a great example of gender responsive budgeting by the Malaysian government.

The Selangor state government also allocated RM 200,000 towards menstrual hygiene products, becoming the first state in Malaysia to do so and highlighting the importance of menstrual hygiene to the wellbeing of Malaysia’s women and girls and in tandem their socio-economic contributions to the country.

We are looking forward to the expansion of such gender responsive budgeting to include women and girls in more, and all, marginalised areas, especially those in Sabah.

Also, with forthcoming climate-related disasters possibly creating both economic and supply chain interruptions it is essential to ensure that menstrual hygiene products are an integral part of relief responses.

In July 2023, UNFPA Malaysia will be commemorating its 50th year in Malaysia, having worked hand in hand with the government and people of Malaysia towards ensuring that every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled — we would like to congratulate the government of Malaysia in prioritising the health and wellbeing of Malaysia’s women and girls and together we look forward to building a sustainable, equitable, and accessible future as we head towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. 

Asa Torkelsson is the UNFPA representative for Malaysia and country director for Thailand.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Ova.

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