Women and Women’s Waste! Proactively managing the disposal of menstrual products

Catarina de Albuquerque, Executive Chair, Sanitation and Water for All

#HLM2017 Partners Perspectives Series CATARINA SM

8 Mar, 2017 in Partner Perspective Categories

I am always happy to have the opportunity to talk and write about the water, sanitation and hygiene needs of women and girls, and promote ways to achieve gender equality and alleviate suffering through better access to these essential services.

The specific theme for Water Day this year is wastewater, so on this International Women’s Day in 2017, I would like to focus on the specific problems that women and girls face with respect to the management of the waste cause by pads, tampons and other menstrual hygiene solutions.

Increasingly, we hear about the very real problems that women and girls face in managing their periods – inadequate information on menstrual health means that women and girls often suffer in silence with medical problems that could be resolved by a short visit to a doctor. Women miss work and girls miss school because there are not sufficient toilets or latrines available at the workplace or in schools, or because there is nowhere for women and girls to manage their menstruation in privacy. In the worst cases, women and girls are not given permission at work or school to take the necessary breaks to manage their menstruation.

Women and girls are faced with social pressures: the stigma attached to menstruation in so many of our cultures; women and girls belittled for menstruating; being judged as lesser because of perceived ‘hormonal’ mood swings, or for feeling sick. These are increasingly known and recognised (if not resolved).

One issue that could be better understood is how women and girls should dispose of menstrual products such as tampons and sanitary towels. We all know these products do not belong in the toilet – they can end up blocking the sewers, causing no end of problems for maintenance workers. Likewise, tampons, sanitary towels, rags and other menstrual materials do not belong in septic tanks or pit latrines, as they do not biodegrade as faecal waste does, and they can end up clogging faecal sludge waste disposal processes. Women and girls are provided with information on why these practices must stop. Unfortunately this is often not accompanied with alternative options for the proper disposal of menstrual materials. Given the taboos and stigma associated with menstrual blood and products, if systems for the disposal of menstrual materials are not available, these products will end up in our wastewater systems.

Sanitation and Water for All partners are united in the desire to promote gender equality, and in finding solutions to reduce the water, sanitation and hygiene burdens that women traditionally carry. To achieve this, our partners are always looking for ways to advocate not only for more funding for services, but also to examine how the existing resources can be better used to promote the elimination of inequalities. This can be achieved by putting women and girls’ needs centre stage – first understanding the problems that are faced by women and girls, and then finding the most appropriate solutions. In this case, ensuring that the right technological systems are in place for managing menstruation can have a positive impact on the physical situation (fewer menstrual materials in the waste systems) but also on the psychological and social situation of women and girls, by alleviating the stresses of inadequate menstrual management. This solutions may often be simple – the provision of a waste system within a toilet cubicle that leads to an incinerator, or similar – but must also be accompanied by an understanding of the stigma and taboos that so often dictate the way we behave. While this problem is small compared to the problem of a general lack of funding for better wastewater management, it is essential if we are to achieve universal access to water and sanitation. These ‘small’ issues – and many others – will be discussed at SWA’s up-coming High-level Meetings , to be held in Washington DC in April where discussions will focus on funding for the sector, but also on how to strengthen systems, multi-stakeholder dialogue and national leadership to make change happen.

Menstruation is a natural function that a significant proportion of the world’s population experiences every month. At SWA, we will not rest until the inequalities associated with menstruation are removed through thinking differently, and promoting better systems for the management of menstruation.

 Country. boys&girls bathroom