Why WASH Matters to Gender Equality

by Rebekah Revello

On #WorldWaterDay, MHM Needs a Spotlight

The fight for clean and accessible drinking water has a distinctly female charge to it. Around the world, 1 in 9 people do not have clean water close to home, and every day, the task for collecting that far-away water falls into women's hands, forcing them to walk miles to and from the nearest water source. This task takes hours out of women's daily lives, in which they could be building their educations, resumes or families. And it's just more evidence of how water inequality and gender inequality are irrevocably connected to each other. But World Water Day is not just about clean drinking water, and accessing drinking water is not the only water-based issue that disrupts women's lives; water for sanitation and water for hygiene hold equally important parts of the WASH acronym, and within the "S" and "H" is a critical issue that is often swept under the rug: menstrual health management, or MHM. 

Inadequate handling of MHM is a global phenomenon and can have a variety of devastating impacts on women's health and well-being. Lack of adequate sanitation can lead to a higher risk of infection for everyone impacted, but when women do not have access to clean water for both sanitation and hygienic aspects of managing their menstrual periods, they are susceptible to an additional risk of infection on top of the general risks- every month. Lack of available sanitary MHM products further perpetuates health risks. In addition to the effects on women's health, research shows inadequate MHM has a negative impact on women's dignity, education, work and psychological well-being. According to Path, "Insufficient attention to menstrual care within gender and reproductive health education, a lack of access to affordable and appropriate menstrual care products, and an absence of appropriate sanitation and waste disposal systems limit women's potential and perpetuate gender inequalities." The general lack of toilets in schools and safe public toilets mean that women and girls are often forced to stay at home when they have their periods, which significantly reduces their time in school and therefore greatly affects their education. Pulling all of these issues together is the unyielding stigma that women continue to face in society regarding menstruation, a stigma so ingrained in many cultures that it often prevents girls from learning about menstruation until the onset of first periods. A view of these issue on the ground can be seen in India where, according to the Indian newspaper The Hindu, cultural beliefs, hygiene practices, and social attitudes have limited girls from using washroom facilities, more so during menstruation. With these incapacitating challenges, the road to gender equality is rough and bumpy, and can only be smoothed with improvements to global water and sanitation.

The solutions to these issues are evident, but they are ambitious. The Global Water Forum recommends both hardware and software solutions to MHM; among the chief recommendations is access to water within latrines or in private spaces to clean the body and absorbents effectively. But this and other recommendations need funding, legislation, and on the ground implementation. Global initiatives need to be localized, and involve collaborations between government, civil society, and the private sector- a notable example this year is Beyonce's BeyGOOD organization, which is working with Gucci to bring clean water to Burundi by 2020, and specifically mentions MHM in the announcement. But most importantly, more attention needs to be brought to MHM as a concept in general; it is conspicuously absent from much of the global discourse on WASH. Though MHM is often included in the subtext under sanitation and hygiene targets, it is not mentioned directly in either of the two global development documents- the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda- or in the new U.S. Global Water Strategy. As this information void persists, millions of women worldwide will continue to live with inadequate water resources and sustainable materials to manage their menstrual cycles. In order true water equality and gender equality to be reached, global stigma must be exchanged for global action.

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