Bringing the Dirty Bloody Linen Out of the Closet – Menstrual Hygiene as a Priority for Achieving Gender Equality
Forthcoming (2015) Cardozo Journal of Law and Gender
54 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2015
Date Written: August 8, 2014
Regular menstruation signals a woman’s health and fertility. Yet, menstruation is surrounded by shame, secrecy, embarrassment, fear, humiliation, silence, taboo, and stigma. Linked to the taboo around menstruation, many cultural and religious norms – often grounded in patriarchal assumptions – seek to prevent contact with menstruating women and girls in order to avoid ‘contamination’ or ‘becoming impure’. To some extent, this perception of menstruation is a paradox, given that motherhood is glorified. However, menstruation is not perceived as ‘feminine’, it does not conform to the stereotypical role and behavior of women. Such stereotypes require women to be beautiful and beautified, deodorized and fresh, not bloody and smelly. Hence, women and girls are expected to hide menstruation and go to great length to conceal it.
Against this background, the article will explore challenges in MHM at the practical and policy level, how menstrual hygiene is situated in the human rights framework, in particular gender equality, how MHM can be defined in human rights terms and how using the framework of human rights and substantive equality may contribute to giving MHM greater visibility and prioritizing the development for appropriate strategies and solutions.
The taboo and silence around menstruation makes menstruation a non-issue. Despite making up half of the population, women’s requirements are overlooked and neglected, sometimes even deliberately ignored. This low priority and lack of attention at all levels – from international policy-making to the private sphere – has devastating impacts on women’s and girls’ lives. It prevents women reaching their full potential and achieving gender equality. Women and girls lose days of school and work with far-reaching implications for their education, well-being and livelihoods, and they are subjected to cultural prescriptions that may amount to harmful practices.
The contribution of the human rights framework lies in drawing attention to the plight of women and girls who are not able to manage their menstruation adequately by highlighting State and other actors’ obligations and responsibilities with respect to MHM. The framework of human rights and substantive equality requires guaranteeing women the exercise and enjoyment of human rights on the basis of equality. Poor menstrual hygiene management, stigmatization, or cultural, social or religious practices that limit menstruating women and girls’ capacity to work, to get an education or to engage in society must be eradicated. Considering menstruation as what it is – a fact of life – and integrating this view at all levels will contribute to enabling women and girls to manage their menstruation adequately, without shame and embarrassment, with dignity.
Keywords: Menstruation, menstrual hygiene, gender equality, human rights
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