Hello, I’m Anamaría Nuñez, and you’re listening to Radio BID, a podcast specially designed for the virtual tour of the Inter-American Development Bank.
How about we talk about hygiene today? Yes, menstrual hygiene. No, no, no, don’t leave. Menstrual hygiene is a very important topic, and we can discuss it without myths or taboos. Why is it so important? Well, at this very moment, over 300 million people around the world are menstruating. It’s a key issue for the well-being of our planet.
Hello, Corinne, and hello, Verónica. Welcome to Radio BID. Hi. How are you? It’s a pleasure to have both of you on the program. Hello, Anamaría. I’m sending you a big, warm hug from Ecuador, and to the entire audience, of course. Well, I have so many questions to ask you, but how about we start from the beginning? So, Corinne, what do we mean when we talk about menstrual hygiene?
Well, it means that women and girls who are menstruating have the possibility to use safe hygienic products to absorb or collect their period. It also means having sanitary facilities that provide privacy as many times as necessary during the menstrual period. Corinne Cathala is the representative of the IDB in Haiti. Using soap and water to wash hands, the body, clothes, and yes, hygienic products, reusable ones, and also being able to properly dispose of waste.
Verónica, what are the main consequences faced by people who lack the proper water and sanitation infrastructure for managing their menstruation? Indeed, there is a direct relationship between water and sanitation issues and menstrual hygiene, which refers to the consequences surrounding the lack of these services.
One of the main impacts or consequences is directly related to the violation of a human right. Verónica Macías Rodríguez is the coordinator of the social and gender part of AECID, the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation. Verónica oversees the Portoviejo project in Ecuador. It’s a human right to have access to hygiene, health, and proper treatment related to women’s menstrual cycle.
For example, according to a UNICEF study, 95% of girls in Peru feel uncomfortable at school during their menstruation, and 35% of them miss school for a day every month during their menstrual period. In many cases, this situation is due to the fear they perceive, whether it’s the smell of blood or the fear of staining themselves out of shame.
Since we can’t discuss the topic of menstruation and its importance for the proper treatment among women and girls, having access to quality water, sufficient water, and this also generates, according to the culturally established elements for addressing the issue, a lot of fear and shame to talk about it, to discuss it. This, of course, also affects the treatment of the process.
Now let’s see what happens in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly in rural areas, where access percentages are usually much lower than in urban areas. Let’s take Haiti and Ecuador as examples. Corinne, in Haiti, for instance, a study conducted on women from rural communities between 14 and 24 years old mentioned that 2/3 of the respondents had unmet menstrual hygiene needs, and 3/4 of them said they missed school due to menstruation.
What are we doing in Haiti? Well, Anamaría, let me start by telling you that Haiti is the first country where a menstrual hygiene component was included in a sovereign guaranteed project of the IDB. Now, within the framework of one of our water and sanitation projects in the northern part of the country, we’re working together with UNICEF on a significant rural component.
We have managed to ensure that at least 152 schools, markets, or health centers in the selected intervention areas have safe access to water, hygiene facilities, and newly constructed or rehabilitated sanitation blocks, properly managed by a funding of 1.4 million dollars.
In schools, particular emphasis will be placed on menstrual hygiene through hygiene promotion sessions, updating existing materials and tools related to menstrual hygiene management. Additionally, peer educators among menstruating young girls will be trained in each school, in collaboration with school health clubs and teaching staff. All of this is aimed at strengthening and maintaining the transmission of knowledge and advice to other menstruating young girls.
Other actions focus on the construction or rehabilitation of toilets in public buildings, which must be adapted for menstrual hygiene. This may include the availability of airtight containers for used sanitary towels that will be emptied daily, as well as the presence of handwashing facilities within women’s and girls’ bathrooms.
This discussion leads us to talk about the specific gender components when developing projects. What do they consist of? Verónica, for example, in the case of Ecuador, you’re working on a project that includes a menstrual hygiene component. Can you tell us more about it? Indeed, there is a drinking water and sanitation project being implemented in the Portoviejo canton, which has an overall gender approach that affects the entire project.
In addition, there are specific components to address this issue. For instance, the programs of the Fund work to effectively incorporate women in decision-making spaces directly related to water and sanitation. We believe this is crucial to ensure their unique criteria and needs are considered in the sanitation field.
Moreover, gender sensitization processes are carried out, and women’s participation is promoted in training and capacity-building projects related to integrated water resource management. One of the most successful initiatives, for example, has been the Community Women’s Training School, which has been implemented in various countries such as Panama, Nicaragua, and Ecuador.
And why am I telling you all this? Because discussing menstrual hygiene or gender issues necessarily requires working specifically with women, breaking myths, stereotypes, and fears surrounding the discussion of their sexuality, their process, and their menstrual cycle, so that they can participate in the decision-making processes that arise around water projects.
And not only the decisions regarding infrastructure projects, but above all, women should be able to express their needs, interests, and demands to address the gaps that sometimes exist around the services. This necessarily requires a gender perspective and the input of women in water and sanitation matters.
Corinne, going back to what you mentioned about the project in northern Haiti, specifically regarding water and sanitation services in schools, what else can we do in this regard?
From the perspective of the human right to water and sanitation, every menstruating woman or girl should have access to a safe, clean, and private space to manage her period with dignity. This includes homes, as well as workplaces, educational institutions, and recreational facilities. It also contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 5 focused on gender equality, and Goal 6 focused on water and sanitation.
When it comes to actions, in the context of water, sanitation, and hygiene in schools, along with providing equitable and sustainable services to educational institutions, components of general and feminine hygiene education should be incorporated. Any intervention should be culturally adapted to promote appropriate behaviors among students, teachers, and other professionals at the schools, regardless of gender.
In this sense, having a safe water source in schools is essential to create an environment conducive to promoting good practices of feminine hygiene. Ideally, all sanitation facilities should have some form of water access, such as a tap or a container refilled periodically. Unfortunately, more than half of schools in low- and middle-income countries lack adequate sanitation facilities for students and teachers.
And even if there are facilities, they are often limited in number and quality, lacking water supply, proper separation of bathrooms, or waste disposal mechanisms. This can lead to girls being subjected to ridicule, experiencing stains or harassment if they cannot manage their intimate hygiene properly. This explains why some girls drop out of school. Furthermore, we have very little information about girls’ and teachers’ access to appropriate and affordable menstrual hygiene products, especially in remote, vulnerable, or marginalized communities.
Wow! And all of this, combined with the lack of access or poor quality of water and sanitation services, jeopardizes the well-being of individuals. Now, turning back to Verónica, what can development institutions and governments do to promote awareness of the importance of addressing menstrual hygiene?
Well, in my opinion, by supporting and promoting projects that incorporate a gender approach and specifically address menstrual hygiene, cooperation agencies and international organizations are already making a significant contribution to development processes implemented by different governments worldwide. Projects need to incorporate budgets and components related to the social aspects and communication in programs. This would allow for progress in proposals that work with local populations to provide directly relevant information, breaking myths and taboos around sexuality.
It is also crucial to ensure adequate funding that allocates resources to menstrual hygiene-related work within programs.
Unfortunately, we have reached the end of our discussion today. As it is a shared responsibility, we must continue to break myths and taboos for a more equal and inclusive world.
Thank you, Corinne. Thank you, Verónica, for this insightful conversation. Many thanks, Anamaría. And thank you, Corinne, for inviting us to participate in this space and for allowing women’s voices to continue weaving around water and sanitation. Thank you all for giving me the opportunity to talk about these topics, especially Haiti. Thank you for listening to Radio IDB, a podcast specially designed for the virtual tour of the IDB Group.