Menstrual Health and Human right
Menstruation is a biological authenticity that every woman face during her reproductive age as it is a key sign for reproductive health. Menstrual hygiene management requires access to menstrual materials, adequate and clean water including soap, and waste/disposal management in a private and dignified manner during menstruation. A state has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the elements of MHM since menstrual health is a human right issue. As it can be inferred from the UDHR preamble human rights are linked with human dignity and menstruation is somehow all about dignity. Apart from this menstruation and its management is interrelated with the other human rights. Badly, the core international human rights instruments failed to recognize MHM as a human rights issue even the so-called women’s conventions failed to recognize MHM, which is a women’s issue. Some say this is due to the fact that the drafters of these international human rights instruments were men.
How is menstrual health related to human rights?
Menstruation is related to health, education, employment, privacy, gender equality, and empowerment of women.
Right to health
Health right is affirmed in many international human right laws as a fundamental right. The term ‘Health‘ shall be understood within the scope of the definition given by the constitution of the World Health Organization; stating “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The right to health is a cornerstone for the attainment of other human rights and at the same time; the recognition of other human rights is essential for the attainment of the right to health. The committee on CESCR in its General Comment no.14 established a comprehensive guideline to address the issue on the implementation of article 12 of the CESCR.
The general comment stipulated that for the realization of the highest attainable standard of health it is necessary to consider the enjoyment of a variety of facilities, goods, services, and conditions. Access to safe, potable, and adequate sanitation is considered a determinant of health rights. The general comment further added that the scope of the right to health is neither limited to the right to be healthy nor the right to health care. Rather “the right to health embraces a wide range of socio-economic factors that promote conditions in which people can lead a healthy life.” General Comment no.14 sets out interrelated and essential elements that constitute the right to health, the so-called 3AQ; these are availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality. Connecting these MHM, menstrual supplies need to be available in terms of health care facilities, accessible economically and without discrimination, acceptable with respect to medical ethics, and culturally acceptable and with quality.
Approaching MHM from a human rights perspective implies acting effectively and comprehensively to improve the lives of women and girls. As stated in the UDHR preamble, all human beings should be respected for their inherent dignity. This is impossible for women and girls to achieve without good menstrual hygiene management. It is critical to provide women and girls with safe, healthy, and effective access to menstrual health management. Thus the enjoyment of women’s health rights is vital to their life and well-being and their ability to participate in all areas of public and private life. If girls do not have access to menstrual material, they may resort to alternative materials to absorb the blood. These alternative materials are usually unclean and unsafe which exposes these girls to infections of the cervix and uterine cavity. This will in turn affect women’s and girls’ health right which is recognized under the core human rights instruments.
Right to Education
Education is both the act of teaching knowledge to others and receiving knowledge from others. Education as a fundamental human right lies at the heart of UNESCO’s mission and is enshrined in the UDHR as well as in many other international human rights instruments. The right to education is one of the key principles underpinning the education 2030 Agenda9 and sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4)10 adopted by the international community. SDG4 is right-based and seeks to ensure the full enjoyment of the right to education as it is fundamental to achieve sustainable development. Women and girls who cannot access menstrual products either due to unaffordability or unavailability will eventually be absent from school.
The repeated absence from the school usually leads to a decrease in their performance and in certain cases it might lead to drop-out. Even sometimes staying at home and missing school during menstruation due to the difficulty to manage periods will lead to early marriage and expose them to sexual violence. Education is a pathway to employment. The right to employment is recognized under many international human rights instruments. If the right to education is deprived, right to employment as well will be lost hence both these rights are interrelated. This makes women to be economically dependent and struggle throughout their life.
Right to Privacy
Privacy is related to dignity Women and girls who do not have access to sanitary products, privacy facilities, or other basic components of MHM prefer to stay home and miss school during menstrual hygiene period. As stated earlier, menstruation is linked with dignity and using unhygienic materials to manage period, undermines the notion of human dignity by teasing, rejection, and humiliation associated to menstruation. The lack or inability to privately manage menstruation, including the inablility to wash, dry and discreelty discard disposable materials, as well as lack of ensuring shealter structures and public facilities providing inadequate privacy for girls and women who may need to change their menstrual materials, will have an impact on women’s right to privacy.
Menstrual health is a comprehensive phrase that encompasses both menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and the broader systemic issues/aspects that connect menstruation with health, well-being, gender, education, equity, empowerment, and rights. Lack of menstrual hygiene management and the shame associated with menstruation have a negative influence on gender equality.
The human right council on its draft resolution14 tried to show the link between menstrual hygiene management, human rights and gender equality and forwarded measures that needed to be taken by a state to have an effective menstrual hygiene management. In order to talk about empowering women either in economic or political aspect first thing that bar women and girls from realizing their human rights needs to be avoided. To empower women in economy and politics first these women need to be educated and healthy and such rights must be enjoyed by them otherwise talking about gender equality and empowerment is pointless. Women’s health right and right to education will be realized when the state protects and fulfills a proper MHM.
MHM and State Obligation
Regarding human rights, state has an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill. As MHM is a cross-sectorial issue, to deliver an effective response, the various sectors must coordinate to ensure that the three central components are addressed. These are MHM materials and supplies, MHM supportive and MHM information. It is their right to feel and look as healthy as possible, as well as to have dignity and control over their bodies. A state has a legal obligation to guarantee that every woman and girl can exercise their right to health to the utmost extent possible.
Moreover, the human right council drafted a resolution in 2021 on menstrual hygiene management, human rights and gender equality. Among the rational to draft such resolution is that the silence of human right instruments to deal with menstrual hygiene in leaves a room to give limited attention in their policies, programming and resource allocation and these indirect inferences made MHM to be seen as not priority and further sanitary products as luxury products. The other rational is to draft the resolution on menstrual hygiene management human rights and gender equality is understanding the relation between MHM and human rights and how effective MHM will enhance gender equality. The resolution also provides measures to ensure effective MHM so as to prevent menstruation from barring women and girls from enjoyment of their human rights.
Among the measures stated in the resolution; to ensure that women and girls have equitable access to affordable, safe and clean water to eliminate or reduce sale taxes on menstrual hygiene management products to integrate menstrual hygiene management into relevant national policies to include information on progress made and challenges affecting menstrual hygiene management in relevant periodic report to human rights treaty bodies and to the Working Group on the l Universal Period
The state has a legal commitment under international human rights law to guarantee that women and girls can exercise their right to health to the utmost degree possible. Concerning right to education, the Committee on CEDAW recommends states to ensure adequate facilities, hygiene education, and resources for menstrual hygiene so as to reduce the number of absentee girls and dropping out of school. States obligation regarding health right can also be found on CESCR general comment no.14 and CEDAW general recommendation no.24.
Menstrual health is a comprehensive phrase that encompasses both menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and the broader systemic issues/aspects that connects menstruation with health, well-being, gender, education, equity, empowerment, and rights. MHM compromises these three components cumulatively, these are;
(i) articulation, awareness, information and confidence to manage menstruation with safety and dignity using safe hygienic materials together with
(ii) adequate water and agents and spaces for washing and bathing with soap and
(iii) disposal of used menstrual absorbents with privacy and dignity. Even though we cannot directly and explicitly infer that MHM is a human right from the core intentional human right documents, this does not rule out the possibility that MHM is related to human rights. Because MHM is one of the fundamental determinants of a woman’s entitlement to the highest attainable standard of health care.
Menstrual health as it connects to health right particularly it is encompassed under sexual and reproductive health right. When women
and girls lack the materials and facilities to manage their menstrual health, they may suffer unfavorable health implications. Menstruation stigma can also discourage women and girls from seeking treatment for menstruation related diseases or pain, limiting their access to the best possible health and well-being.
The above listed basic human rights will be affected due to improper MHM. Thus if a state did not consider menstrual health as a human right, the right to health, privacy, education, and employment will be violated and result in gender inequality and early marriage. From this it can be understood that menstrual health is a matter of human rights. However, there is a widespread assumption that menstruation is a non-essential issue, and that tampon tax is a luxury good. Period Products are not luxury! Taxing sanitary goods in and of themselves is unconstitutional and discriminatory against women since tampon tax is a sex-based tax. To promote gender equality and to empower women in all aspects of life efficient and effective MHM is expected from states.
By Yabsera Alemneh Seneshaw