Menstruation and personal hygiene should not be a barrier to well-being

At any given moment, about every fourth woman of menstruating age in the world has her period. For many women, this does not prevent them in their everyday life. For too many, the lack of a private space for washing and managing their menstruation, sanitary products to absorb or collect the blood or the ability to dispose of sanitary materials acts as barriers to community participation.

The Essity survey shows that millions of workdays and days in school are lost each year because women refrain from attending. Beside the medical reasons, social stigma and lack of basic access to toilet, washrooms and sanitary products explain the absence. This includes 15 million days of absence in the US, 6.1 million in Mexico, 1.7 million in France and 645,000 in Australia.

Women have refrained from going to school/work because of matters connected to menstruation (icon)

Considering the many women with special needs and disabilities, women who live in conflict-affected areas or in the aftermath of natural disasters to mention a few, they often have even less access to the facilities and resources they need to manage their menstruation.

Break the stigma of women’s bodies

In many societies, there is still a culture of shame associated with menstruation. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of World Population 2019 Report, menstruation-related stigmas reinforce the notion that women are inferior to men, which can be used to justify preventing girls and women from going to school, cooking and attending religious ceremonies.28

In recent years, there has been a strong movement to break the stigma of menstruation. Women and men all over the world have been speaking up about menstruation and what is needed to break the related barriers to community participation. This has paved the way for a future where menstruation is recognized a normal bodily function, and as a sign of health than can be discussed openly.

Everyone can play a role in breaking down stigmas and myths. A new global research study29 reveals that two thirds of women who experience miscarriage, endometriosis, fertility issues and menopause would find it easier to cope with these experiences by being open with family and friends. And yet, the same research found that half of women feel society wants them to keep silent about their experience and half of women felt that staying silent about their issues damaged their mental health.

It is important to create a more open culture to generate a virtuous circle of sharing and listening to bring about individual, cultural and ultimately institutional change. Diverse stakeholders have different opportunities to break barriers and challenge norms.

Chris Bobel, Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of The Managed Body examines the intersection of social movements, gender, health and embodiment. ”Girls need to be able to live, study, work, and play in communities where menstruation is no longer deployed as ammunition. Menstruation must be read as a naturally occurring biological process. De-weaponized. To this end, everyone surrounding girls – boys, teachers, family members, religious leaders, policy makers, and so on – needs to challenge menstrual stigma.” says Bobel.

Everyone is needed to break taboos

Businesses can contribute to breaking taboos in many ways. Besides providing products and services that lead to inclusive societies, companies can support actors such as civil society, academics or policy makers with their product and market insights. Businesses can also use their broad reach to empower people and break social stigmas directly.

For years, the Essity brand for Feminine care, Libresse, has been at the forefront of breaking taboos and stereotypes affecting well-being and health around the globe. The award-winning #BloodNormal initiative in 2017, which reached over 800 million people, tackled the stigma around periods and turned the socially acceptable ‘blue liquid’ visual depiction into the ‘real’ red.

Uterus (photo)

Image from the Libresse initiative #wombstories giving a voice to the unseen, unspoken and truths about women`s bodies.

With ‘Viva La Vulva` in 2018, symbolic singing vulvas called out the body shaming culture that is prevalent today. In 2020, the latest initiative, #wombstories, highlights the unseen, unspoken and unknown stories about periods, miscarriage, endometrioses, peril, menopaus, vulvas and wombs by inviting people tell their own personal stories. The Golden Globe decorated director of #wombstories, Nisha Ganatra, explains the importance of #wombstories: “I feel particularly drawn to this project. The work I feel most passionate about is the work that meaningfully resists outmoded social norms that no longer fit the cultural moment but persist nonetheless.”

Another example of reaching out on hygiene and health issues is the initiative ‘Hygiene is our right´. UNICEF in Mexico and Essity have collaborated since 2016 to increase dialogue about menstruation and hygiene issues among young peopole in the country. This collaboration has reached 7,5 million people via various channels in Mexico.

Empowering women to build toilets in Nepal

Young woman smiling next to a toilet (photo)

A female-led neighborhood group in Pokharigaun, Nepal, is championing basic sanitation in the village to ensure access for every household.

Fifteen years ago, ten women in the Nepali village of Pokharigaun stood up to change the behavior of their neighbors and went on to become the driving force for promoting the importance of sanitation. Sunita Gurung, a mother of three, is one of the founding members that formed a neighborhood group in the village.

She reflects on 13 years of her married life living in an open defecation community and cleaning up feces outside her house as an obedient and decent housewife. Like the other villagers, Gurung was unaware that pathogens from fecal matters often cause sickness. But worries about the family`s health began, as she and her newborn baby often had to seek treatment for repeated infections.

The turning point for Gurung was a visit to another village, where she used toilets with running water for the very first time. She felt empowered to act not only in her household but the entire community to end open defecation. Now the neighborhood group, comprising 42 members, leads the drive to ensure that basic sanitation is accessible to all the 54 village households.

WSSCC is a partner supporting the implementation of Nepal’s sanitation campaign – an intensive national push to achieve a dramatic transformation of the country’s sanitation and hygiene practices through a behavior change approach.

Woman sitting in front of many other women (photo)

Sunita Gurung is a founding member of a neighborhood group working to bring basic sanitation to all households in Pokharigaun, Nepal.

Champion reaching out to hearing-impaired

Champions such as Patricia Mulongo are at the forefront of breaking taboos in emerging markets around the world. Patricia Mulongo is the only hearing-impaired menstrual hygiene management (MHM) trainer in Kenya. She trains people with disabilities to show that menstruation doesn’t have to leave anyone behind. As she suddenly lost her hearing at the age of 13, and did not learn sign language until she was 18, Mulongo was excluded from learning about menstruation. Now in her early forties, Mulongo is an MHM champion training people with disabilities. She participated in the first national MHM Training of Trainers in Kenya organized by WSSCC, UNICEF and the Kenyan Ministry of Health. A fashion designer by trade, Mulongo was identified through her links with the Deaf Women Empowerment (DWE) community organization. In just under a year, Mulongo has trained more than 200 people. She reaches out to people in schools, social events, through churches and the community. “MHM has stolen my heart and l make sure to bring up the topic every time l meet people as my aim is to reach as many hearing-impaired people as l can,” Mulongo signs.

Menstruation – a human rights issue?

Under the Women’s Convention, practices related to menstruation may constitute discrimination if they affect “fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. In this sense, lack of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene products to properly manage menstruation may constitute a human rights violation30.

Woman holding a menstrual wheel (photo)

Participators in the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) workshop review learning materials. Both women and men take part in the workshop as a way break taboos on menstruation in society.

28 UNFPA (2019). State of World Population 2019. Visit source

29 Research conducted by Essity Libresse in February 2020 with 8, 121 people (4113 women and 4008 men) aged 18-55+ in UK, France, Italy, Sweden, Russia, China, Argentina and Mexico. Of these people 5,632 were parents 2,489 were not parents

30 Boosey, R. and Wilson-Smith, E. (2014) A vicious cycle of silence: What are the implications of the menstruation taboo for the fulfilment of women and girls’ human rights and, to what extent is the menstruation taboo addressed by international human rights law and human rights bodies? Research Report. ScHARR Report Series (29). School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield