Zelda Yanovich, Technical Officer, Networking and Knowledge Management, Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)

As part of BSR’s celebration of International Women’s Day, during the month of March, we asked BSR partners to contribute a guest blog on their experiences with women’s empowerment through their lives and work.

Sitting in the school grounds in Wardha, in the western part of India, a 13-year-old girl named Priyanka earnestly gave her answers to a survey my organization was conducting to gain insights on girls’ experiences with menstruation. “I received my first period two months ago,” she told us, sharing taboo information that her mother warned her to keep from the family, the neighbors, and her friends. Her mother, she explained, is worried that if people know, they will pressure her to marry, to leave school, and to follow the typical cultural restrictions during menstruation: No entering the kitchen, leaving the house, touching the water pot.

The social stigmas surrounding menstruation, and restrictions on women’s attendance of school and work, are visible worldwide. To me, supporting women’s empowerment means ensuring that women and girls can fully enjoy their human rights, including their right to education and right to work. It also means ensuring that they can contribute equally to political, economic, and social decisions affecting the world.

Over a lifetime, girls and women menstruate an average of 3,000 days. A menstrual hygiene survey from Plan and AC Nielson found that in India, 23 percent of girls drop out of school at the onset of puberty. Many women report missing work or leaving early on “those days.” Clearly, menstrual hygiene has an impact on women’s lives and their sense of empowerment.

I have seen that process of empowerment happen after the simplest conversation. What can be more powerful than a girl on a playground whispering a secret that she was told not to tell, crushing in one action a cultural taboo? What can be more powerful than a mother admitting that she will not let her daughters marry into a house that restricts women’s movements when they are menstruating? What can be more powerful than a male teacher being allowed, for the first time, to discuss the issue his students face, and as a result taking it upon himself to build an incinerator next to the girls’ toilet? 

Our approach at the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council is to break the silence and talk about menstrual hygiene and management so that we can banish the taboos and create the platform for change.

Ask yourself this: If workers felt they could talk about menstrual hygiene, and female workers had facilities to help them manage menstruation hygienically at work, would they not then empower their daughters, their nieces, and their loved ones, too? And if women could manage their periods at work, would it not increase the number of hours they could work one week out of four and enable them to reach their full potential in their careers? BSR’s HERproject shows a compelling return on investment model for factories willing to invest in menstrual hygiene education for female workers. So perhaps the real question now is this: What can your organization do to break the silence around menstrual hygiene?