Access to water and sanitation and its impact on menstrual hygiene distresses women both on Earth and in space
Hardly anybody knows that the menstrual cycle at zero gravity is one of the logistic variables for space missions. Since the sixties, over 60 women astronauts have had to figure out how to deal with their periods aboard spaceships. The physical impacts as well as practical problems linked to weight and the elimination of waste –such as tampons, sanitary pads, and contraceptives— in confined spaces which didn’t take these considerations into account in their design have been in the spotlight of high level scientific debate.
Why are we debating the space logistics of menses? Because access to water and sanitation and its impact on menstrual hygiene distresses both women engineers in space and women carrying out everyday tasks here on the ground.
Today, an estimated 663 million people around the globe lack access to safe water; and sanitation is even worse, with one third of the population worldwide (i.e., 2.4 billion people) lacking access to appropriate sanitation. Or, to put it in another way: there are more people in the world with access to cell phones than to a restroom. Given the traditional role of women in many societies, they bore the burden–both literally and figuratively— of having to do without these services, dedicating over 125 million hours collectively every day to fetch water for their families in containers that can weigh up to 20 kilos (44 lbs.)
Therefore, designing and implementing a drinking water system, a basic sanitation unit or any other type of water and sanitation infrastructure is not just about boosting access. We must go beyond plumbing and pipes and include gender perspectives to address inequality and ensure the projects’ quality and sustainability.
Let’s start with health. Some problems related to the lack of safe drinking water appear in connection to the resource’s poor quality, and others to bad hygiene habits. For example, 1.5 million children die every year of diarrhea; this is the second most common cause of death among children under the age of five. Simple practices such as boiling the water, washing your hands with soap after using the toilet –as well as other more complex actions such as tank and cistern cleansing— are necessary (though not enough) to avoid water-borne diseases.
Nevertheless, as behavioral economics have proven, to change habits such as hand washing we must go beyond traditional schemes based on rational behavior and resort to more sophisticated tools from fields as varied as marketing or anthropology. And a decisive vector of good habits around the house are women, especially in areas where they’re in charge of fetching water, cooking, cleaning the house, and looking after the children. Therefore, active equal participation of both men and women throughout the whole service provision cycle must be made a sectorial priority for our interventions to be successful.
Menstrual hygiene is another aspect of the vicious cycle brought about by exclusion and inequality. Where there are no restrooms, women and girls must walk long distances alone at night to avoid being seen or harassed, and have no choice but to defecate in the open. As if that weren’t enough, in many countries they’re forced to miss school and/or work (which impacts on their education levels, incomes, and in the long term, in their overall human development) due to the lack or poor quality of the sanitation facilities built with no regard to their intimate hygiene’s special needs (absence of gender-segregated bathrooms, hygienic products or where to dispose of them.) As an example, the number of girls enrolled in schools is 15% higher in communities with water and sanitations services.
At the same time, the cost or lack of habit of buying menstrual pads or tampons makes many women –especially those in remote, hard-to-access areas– resort to alternative products such as ashes, leaves, or rags during their periods which together with the lack of water and sanitation can lead to infections and subsequent health problems. This is why menstrual hygiene is a key element for the well-being of our households and women’s dignity.
In conclusion, providing communities with water and sanitation represents an opportunity to face up to the challenges that (basic) female hygiene poses, demystifying menses, promoting women’s’ participation, fostering the design of inclusive policies, designing appropriate infrastructure or, as they say in sectorial jargon: introducing a cross-gender approach to water and sanitation.
It turns out that menses can take place normally in space (if women astronauts happen to have their periods during the mission.) And while scientists are still studying how to manage menstrual cycles in orbit, we will continue to strive to provide quality water, sanitation, and solid waste services in Latin America and the Caribbean and contribute to a better quality of life on our planet.
*The Spanish version of this article was published in Planeta Futuro from El Pais.