Right now, around 282million women and girls around the world are menstruating. This time of the month can be annoying and uncomfortable at the best of times. But for those who struggle to access water, a decent toilet and sanitary towels, it is a monthly exercise in anxiety and humiliation.
This is true for those suffering from period poverty both here in the UK and around the world. One in ten girls in the UK don’t have access to sanitary products. One in three girls across the globe don’t have access to a toilet during their period. This has to change, and the first step to making this change is to talk about periods.
Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day, a topic that remains shrouded in stigma in the UK and around the world. Menstruating women and girls are often seen as dirty or impure. It can mean being ostracised from the family kitchen, the family home, the garden, from sports or the swimming pool. All of this is to the detriment of the health, wellbeing and prospects of women and girls across the world. It’s time to change that.
A lack of water and sanitation disproportionately impacts women at any time of the month, these issues are magnified when she is on her period. Coping with your period without being able to lock a toilet door against prying eyes, or suffering the indignity and insecurity of trying to find a quiet place to go to the toilet, puts women and girls at risk of harassment and attack.
A recent WaterAid report on menstrual hygiene management in South Asia found that one in every three girls in the region report missing school days every month during their period. When there are no safe, private toilets in schools, girls may skip school during their period, or drop out of school altogether once they reach puberty.
Being able to deal with periods in a hygienic and dignified way is crucial to all women’s wellbeing. Something as simple as private, safe toilets and water in schools and communities can transform the everyday lives of women and girls. Education about menstruation is also essential. We need to be able to talk about these issues here in the UK as well as around the world.
It might not be popular or easy, but if progress is to last, we need political leaders to talk about menstruation and to commit to lasting change. Governments everywhere, including in low income countries, must lead on enabling access to safe, private toilets. Through working in schools and communities to improve girls’ ability to manage their periods through better access to water, toilets and sanitary supplies as well as dispelling the myths that shroud periods, women can advance in society, improve their health and girls kept in school. Challenging the myths and taboos surrounding periods is vital to ensure that periods no longer hamper the life prospects and ambitions of women and girls around the globe.
In September, my colleague Dawn Butler, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, committed the Labour Party to ending period poverty in the UK in our lifetime. That includes stepping up the provision of free sanitary products. The UK government should be doing much more to deal with the injustice of period poverty in the UK through providing support for low income women to purchase sanitary products.
But it is an international injustice too. In March, I announced that Labour will implement the UK’s first truly feminist approach to international development. That means we have to remove the barriers that hold women and girls back and that entrench gender inequality. Helping development partners and governments around the world to target period poverty by investing in water, sanitation and hygiene must be part of that. We can end this injustice. We can end period poverty.
Kate Osamor is the shadow international development secretary and Labour MP for Edmonton