Women’s menstrual health should no longer be a taboo, say UN human rights experts
Geneva (5 March, 2019) - Ahead of International Women’s Day, a group of United Nations human rights experts* call on the international community to break the taboo around menstrual health and take concrete action to ensure that discriminatory practices are ended and that menstrual health of women and girls is protected.
“Despite recent campaigns by women to challenge menstruation taboos (such as Happy to Bleed), as well as the increasing attention to the issue of menstruation in the media, research, art and policy-making, there should be more efforts to address challenges faced by women and girls with regard to their menstrual cycle”, said UN experts. “Persistent harmful socio-cultural norms, stigma, misconceptions and taboos around menstruation, continue to lead to exclusion and discrimination of women and girls”.
“The stigma and shame generated by stereotypes around menstruation have severe impacts on all aspects of women’s and girls’ human rights, including their human rights to equality, health, housing, water, sanitation, education, freedom of religion or belief, safe and healthy working conditions, and to take part in cultural life and public life without discrimination,” said the experts.
“In some countries, menstruating women and girls are considered to be contaminated and impure, and restrictions and interdictions are imposed on them, such as prohibitions from touching water or cooking, attending religious and cultural ceremonies or entering religious sites, or engaging in community activities. Menstruating women and girls can even be banished to outside sheds where they suffer in cold and isolation, often at risk of illness and animal attacks. The patriarchal control exerted to constraint women’s behavior and mobility during menstruation undermines their agency and equality. When combined with the stigma and shame that women and girls are made to feel during that time, it is truly disempowering,” stated the experts.
“Moreover, many women and girls live with lack of privacy for cleaning and washing and lack of access to safe and hygienic toilets or separate sanitation facilities in the workplaces, educational and other public institutions. Sanitary hygiene products are often inaccessible or too costly, particularly for women and girls living in poverty and in situation of crisis, and States are often silent on those issues in their policies. In such situations, women and girls can be pushed to use improvised, unhygienic materials that may lead to leaking and infection and put their health at serious risk”, added the experts.
“Stigma around menstruation has significant health impacts on women’s and girls’ health. Many health care providers are dismissive of serious health issues and women’s symptoms related to menstruation and it can take several years to be diagnosed with endometriosis and dysmenorrhea (painful disorders which can also affect women’s fertility)”, explained the experts.
“Moreover, due to stigma and limited knowledge of menstruation (in the context of widespread inaccessibility of comprehensive sexuality education), many girls have negative and ambivalent feelings about menstruation and experience psycho-social stress, which impacts their ability to learn. In addition, in some countries the first menstruation is linked to readiness for marriage, increasing the risks of adolescent pregnancy, limiting girls’ education and work opportunities.”
“Furthermore, lack of accommodation of women’ and girls’ menstruation related health needs in educational institutions and workplaces, such as providing for rest periods, has an impact on school and job attendance, and thus affects women’s economic participation and advancement, undermining gender equality”, added the experts.
Some countries have outlawed discriminatory practices linked to menstruation, though much remains to be done to ensure effective implementation of laws. In addition, some countries have developed policies to be responsive to women’s and girls’ needs during menstruation, such as measures to support women in the workplace (e.g. paid leave), and providing free sanitary products in schools. However, around the world, the human rights concerns related to women’s menstrual cycle are still largely disregarded by policymakers. A failure to address menstrual and health needs of women and girls has a detrimental impact on all areas of their lives and violates their fundamental right to equality as well as the right to participate in public, economic, social and cultural life, added the experts.
“More needs to be done globally to address the menstrual health needs of women and girls and transform the systems, norms and attitudes to support women’s and girls’ menstrual health and well-being. A global shift in cultures is needed to affirm the importance of respecting menstruation, acknowledge it as a human rights issue and eliminate discrimination, shame and stigma too often attached to it”, said the experts, noting that many women and girls are starting to celebrate their menstrual cycle, through for example, Red Tent and Moon Mothers.
“Myths and misinformation need to be combated through comprehensive, non-judgmental, accurate and accessible information to improve menstrual literacy. States, who have international human rights obligations to eliminate discrimination against women, should take transformative measures, in cooperation with UN entities, independent women’s rights mechanisms, CSOs, women’s organisations and the business sector. Particular attention should be paid to women and girls in disadvantageous positions, such as women living in poverty, in situations of crisis and conflict, in precarious housing or absence of housing”, recommended the experts. “ Menstrual health and hygiene should be prioritized as part of comprehensive sexuality education, water and sanitation policies, ensuring that women’s sexual and reproductive rights are respected and that they have access to safe, affordable and quality menstrual hygiene products”, they added.
“It is unacceptable that women and girls are exposed to harmful gender stereotypes or taboos regarding natural and biological functions such as menstruation, resulting in ostracism of and discrimination against women and girls”, concluded the experts.
The UN Experts: Ms. Ivana Radačić, Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice, Ms. Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Mr. Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Ms. Koumbou Boly Barry, Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Mr. Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Ms. Dubravka Šimonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its root causes and consequences and Mr. Surya Deva, Chair of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises
United Nations human rights experts represent the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures are a body of independent experts with mandates to conduct fact-finding, monitoring and reporting on country-specific or thematic human rights issues around the world. Learn more: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/Welcomepage.aspx
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