The World Menstrual Health/Hygiene day was marked on 28th May, a little over a month ago. This year is the first time I have been in spaces where I actively participated in marking this day. The World Menstrual Health/Hygiene day advocacy aims to “ break the silence, raise awareness and change the negative social norms around menstrual health and hygiene”.
As 28th May drew closer, I started to remember my encounters with menstrual health in my first job after I completed university. The workplace had more men than women and even fewer women who worked in the office. It was a mining company and most of the people who worked there were geologists. The nature of geological work is that people are always in the field. It was interesting when I joined the office, I had not taken note that the toilet we used did not have a sanitary bin. But it was not too long before my period came knocking and my first question was what do women do here during menstruation?
What are the blindspots?
A lot of things were surprising to me about this situation , for example:
- The fact that at the point of setting up the office, a contract with a sanitary company was not on the list of utilities.
- The fact that the few women in the office found other ways to navigate the challenge.
- The fact that my decision to speak to the manager with a proposal on what needs to be done was termed “brave”.
- The fact that there are existing laws (Acts of Parliament) that prescribe for the provision of sanitation facilities such as toilets, hand wash facilities; but they do not highlight specifics on menstrual hygiene.
- The fact that as of 2013, menstrual health was still not a mainstream conversation. Hence, boys and men are generally desensitized from the topic which impacts their decision making in spaces where they hold managerial power.
Safety and health in workplace should consider menstrual health
As an occupational health and safety practitioner, I have observed that audit concerns are limited to if the workplace provides a toilet and hand-washing facility. I challenge us to a more comprehensive evaluation. Within that toilet facility, are people who menstruate able to adequately cater to their needs? Is it big enough? Is it regularly cleaned? Is there a sanitary bin where they can dispose of a sanitary pad or tampon for example? Is there a constant water supply for proper hand-washing? These questions are even more pressing for workplaces that operate at the margins of the law, what is commonly referred to as the informal sector.
Additionally, in the general practice of occupational health and safety, things like design of personal protective equipment (PPE) does it consider that women have very specific hygiene needs? I recall that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PPE that was mass produced for health workers posed a great challenge to women. Women health workers were required for long hours to be in disposable gowns whose design was like coverall. The process of removing them doesn’t support ease of change of pads or tampons which are the commonly used menstrual products. I have always pondered on the design of coveralls as well. The need to change pads/tampons often or generally going to the toilet for even short calls, means that the discomfort is doubled up. Is it time to advocate for these issues? Yes. Will the implementation be realized soon?likely not. But I am guided by a common story by the late Prof Wangari Maathai, to do the best you can, with the little you have like the hummingbird.
It is such blindspots that nudged me to reflect on this particular topic as a way of raising awareness on menstrual health and hygiene needs at workplaces.
EDIT: The World Health Organization(WHO), 50th session on the Human rights council panel discussion that concluded on 8th July, 2022, called on stakeholders to recognize and frame menstruation as a health issue, not a hygiene issue — a health issue with physical, psychological, and social dimensions, and one that needs to be addressed in the perspective of a life course — from before menarche to after menopause.
In addition, WHO stated that it is committed to breaking the silence and stigma associated with menstruation and to make schools, health facilities and other workplaces (including WHO’s workplaces), menstruation responsive.