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Menstrual hygiene inextricably linked to human rights to water and sanitation

19 Dec 2019


Gender-based inequalities such as lack of access to menstrual hygiene become worse when they are connected with other types of discrimination such as disability. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), “persons with disabilities include those who have long term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” There is no doubt that women with disabilities are disproportionately affected by unhygienic and inadequate toilet facilities.

On the eve of the Nairobi Summit, key stakeholders convened to raise the profile of menstruation in the International Conference on Population and Development, ICPD25. The Global Menstrual Health and Hygiene Collective (The Case For Her, WSSCC and WASH United for Menstrual Hygiene Day) led a team of government representatives, partners and stakeholders within and beyond the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) arena, in driving and guiding improved investments in menstrual health through evidence-based advocacy. With timely and adequate access to menstrual availability and menstrual information, adolescent girls and women, especially those living with disability have the potential to contribute towards increased educational equity and economic potential, substantive reduction in violence including instances of stigma for improved health and education outcomes.

On the flip side, lack of the above-mentioned variables spell double tragedy for girls and women with disabilities. “There is need for consultation to understand the needs of women and girls with disability from a menstrual health and hygiene perspective in relation to sexual and reproductive health,” reckoned Hon. Nalule Safia Juuko, Member of Parliament, Uganda. One of her key innovations is the development and introduction of a comprehensive gender and equity budgeting certification. No budget can be approved in all sectors without the certificate at the national level in Uganda. This approach also echoes the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Building Blocks such as monitoring and reviewing that need to be put in place to achieve an effective sector.

As we celebrate the 10th year anniversary of the recognition of human rights to water and sanitation, it’s crucial to remember that these rights are inextricably linked to menstrual hygiene. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council recognized this link– “that the lack of access to adequate water and sanitation services, including menstrual hygiene management, and the widespread stigma associated with menstruation have a negative impact on gender equality and the human rights of women and girls.” Defining menstruation hygiene through the human rights framework helps us look at the issue in a more holistic manner. “It is not just an infrastructure issue, it is at least as much an issue of having the voice and space to articulate and meet one’s needs. It requires access to accurate and pragmatic information and raising the awareness and confidence of women and girls to manage menstruation with safety, privacy, and dignity.” (Winkler and Roaf, 2014) Similarly, to understand disability within the rights-based approach- is to go beyond attending individual needs and dealing with barriers, empowering people to claim their rights and hold duty bearer accountable, and bringing long-term systematic changes in the attitudes, behaviours, policies and laws. (Equality, non-discrimination and inclusion toolkit, WaterAid 2018) This rights-based approach to menstrual hygiene is almost assured with an emphatic unequivocal call by all key sector stakeholders and actors.

As a youth standing up for human rights, I believe participation plays a crucial role in positively empowering those left behind. After all, giving the platform to the marginalized and vulnerable is not only the right thing to do but also a commitment that sends a strong signal and provides momentum for an ambitious policy response to menstrual health and hygiene at international, regional, national and even sub-national levels.