Menstrual Hygiene Day is celebrated annually on 28 May. Menstruation is the monthly experience of around 3.5 billion women and girls around the world. Yet, in many cultures and religions globally, menstruation is often shrouded in secrecy, thus creating space for stigma and abuse.
In his opening remarks, Rev. Dr Kenneth Mtata, WCC programme director for Public Witness and Diakonia, shared that some foundational religious practices sometimes use the fact of women's menstruation to prohibit women from participating in some activities and may even justify punishing women to unsafe spaces during their menstrual cycles.
“Religious institutions should not be a source of exclusion caused by menstruation”, he said. “Menstruation is more than just a religious taboo, there are also socioeconomic and cultural implications.” he added. “It is time to stop this. We have a strong potential to be ones that will bring change to this reality.”
The lack of adequate access to water and sanitation, particularly in schools, adds to the cultural complexity around menstrual hygiene and its impact on young girls. With successive absences from school due to monthly menstrual cycle periods, girls may end up becoming school dropouts.
Anita Kukreti, project officer at Churches’ Auxiliary for Social Action, India, shared good practices on menstrual health, hygiene undertaken by her organization at the grassroots level. She lamented that some women are made to stay in a hut separated from their house during their period, as women and men consider menstruation as dirty and polluting.
From an eco-friendly reusable sanitary pad production to a three-phase workshop that aims to educate and empower women, break the stigma surrounding menstruation, and provide sustainable solutions for menstrual hygiene, Churches’ Auxiliary for Social Action has been addressing the issue of menstrual awareness as a fixed segment of gender justice work undertaken in gender components of projects.
Michele Vecchi, senior thematic advisor for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene (WASH) at Norwegian Church Aid, shared how his organization works with issues related to menstrual hygiene and how religious leaders can play a positive role in raising awareness about how stigma affects this issue.
“Our experience is that when we manage to talk about this, people realize quickly that menstruation is a matter of our daily lives. The first big step towards inclusion of people with menstruation is that realization,” he said.
“When we manage to talk with people and share ideas, then things can change, because when there is trust among people in a conversation, we hear each other. And when religious leaders are involved in this conversation, most of the time, the change happens even faster because they have a heritage of trustworthiness, they are credible, they are present in the community and they serve as strong examples” added Vecchi.
The online event was co-hosted by Rev. Nicole Ashwood, WCC programme executive of Just Community of Women and Men, and Dinesh Suna, coordinator of the WCC Ecumenical Water Network. Other speakers included Naomi Ayot Oyaro, from Uganda, executive director of the Canada Africa Partnership on addressing HIV/AIDS, Dr Princess Matapo, a medical doctor serving in rural Zambia and Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati of Global Interfaith WASH Alliance.