LOOKING BACK on the significance of a key 2018 UNFPA event

Written by: Deborah Jordan Brooks, Ph.D.
Edited by: Andrew C. (IMHER Research Assistant)

A plenary session at the symposium

In May 2018, many of those in the global MHM sector attended the UNFPA ERARO’s Menstrual Health Management symposium held in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event was well-publicized enough afterwards that those who were not able to attend have likely heard about it by now.

(For summaries of the symposium, see this notably-effective promotional video and this in-depth final report; both are worth looking at even for those who attended, as great models of how thorough post-event communication can further the goals that motivated the event in the first place.)

Why Look Back?

Almost one year later, it seems worth looking back on this significant event in the progress of menstrual health as a global movement. What was learned from it? What has it lead to so far?

The Scene

Dr. Julitta Onabanjo,
Regional Director for UNFPA East and Southern Africa, speaking at the symposium

At the conference, a gathering hundreds of individuals from politics, the for-profit product world, the non-profit product and education realm, academics, and luminaries of other sorts (well-known African rappers, artists, and actresses) converged upon Johannesburg for the largest – and in some ways, the first – major, collaborative, multi-sectoral gathering on these issues in lower Africa (and by most accounts, it was unprecedented globally.) 


The fact that the event started on May 28 – Menstrual Hygiene Day – was not accidental. A long overdue topic has been hitting the international stage with gusto, with some remarkable work finally getting high-profile attention. With the recent release of the movie Pad Man, the growth of the #MeToo movement and a resurgence of feminism, growing grassroots global activism around reducing menstrual stigma, and other positive signs of big changes-in-the-making, the timing of it seemed promising for high-profile collaboration.

The topic of the symposium was ostensibly focused on menstrual health in Eastern and Southern Africa, however its geographic purview was much bigger.  The cases presented were largely Africa-focused, but most of the issues discussed are shared around the world to some extent. It was largely a major global conference about a global issue that had been largely ignored by the world at large until the previous couple of years. 

The excitement in every room and hallway during the conference was unforgettable, and magnified by the presence of celebrity, both of the political and red carpet variety.

Much Agreement

At both full assembly and breakout sessions there seemed to be substantial agreement on most issues (many of which are discussed in the post-symposium report cited above).

To summarize many of the points of agreement:

  • Menstrual stigma and product affordability tend to be a challenge worldwide. 
  • Girls need more high-quality education about menstruation but so do adult women, boys, and men.
  • It is not exclusively those who self-identify as “girls” or “women” who menstruate.
  • Menstruation is not disconnected from other issues pertaining to women and/or poverty, so it requires a multi-sectoral approach. 
  • Menstruators living in poverty and/or in rural areas would prefer to have access to a wider array of product options.
  • Disposal can be a serious challenge for disposable menstrual products in many locations.
  • The role of menstrual pain needs to be better studied. 
  • More research across all aspects of MHM is needed – yet underfunded
  • Survey/experiment questionnaires need to be studied, standardized, and expanded in terms of areas they examine. 
  • Members of marginalized groups, cultural sensitivity, and traditional leaders need to feature more prominently in outreach efforts.
  • Water, sanitation, bathroom infrastructure, and privacy also matter.
  • Menstruation in humanitarian settings needs more attention and standardization. 
  • Government taxation and education policies need to change.

(and more!)

Agreement on such issues helps to make collaboration possible, and it is to be celebrated in many ways. 

However, it also seems like a challenge for this sector can be its tendency to often revisit and circle back to points of widespread agreement. In the process, time can often be lost for addressing the many complexities and roadblocks at hand.