Advancing Menstrual Equity at the Systemic Level: A Webinar Report
Webinar Dives into Policy Shifts, Standards, and Challenges in Eastern and Southern Africa
Written by Sophie Basescu, IMHER Student Research Assistant
and Fiona Sleigh, IMHER Student Research Assistant
Although the Covid-19 pandemic continues to halt many in-person events, conversations on the future of MHM work continue through virtual platforms. On February 25th, a number of featured speakers came together to speak about menstrual equity at the systemic level. The event was sponsored by Days for Girls, the UNFPA ESARO (East & Southern Regional Office), and the ACMHM, with IMHER as an honorary cosponsor. The webinar explored the opportunities and challenges of addressing menstrual equity in Eastern and Southern Africa in the political sphere.
From considering the role government can play on a macro-level of setting national agendas, to the specifics of what it means to design a building that is MHM-conscious, the panelists each contributed to a dynamic conversation on how to improve menstrual equity through policy shifts and standards. While the regional focus was on Africa, most of the key takeaways from the session will tend to apply globally.
The link to the recorded session is available here. Note that a transcript of the discussion appears next to the video, which allows for reading instead of viewing if preferred, and additionally the ability to skip to a particular speaker or point identified in the transcript.
Here we will be focusing on a selection of key ideas that emerged from the discussion.
1. Faster progress is possible when ownership of MHM policy comes from the highest levels of government.
Many of the speakers, including Ibrahim Basweti, Kenya’s senior public health officer at the Ministry of Health, and Janet Mbuguya, the panel moderator, echoed the sentiment that strong and effective policy set at the highest levels of government translates to more equitable policies and practices on the ground.
Basweti spoke of the implications of establishing legal and regulatory frameworks that include monitoring, evaluation, research, and feedback frameworks so that equitable policies can be established.
Moreover, policy shifts and government action on the national stage help to facilitate and expedite strong policies at the regional and local levels.
2. Establishing legal and regulatory environments at both national and sub-national (county) levels is key to policy success.
Neville Okwaro, a consultant to Kenya’s Ministry of Health, stated the importance of engaging local and regional leaders throughout every step of the policy and decision-making process. This, he stated, can help ensure participation and adherence to MHM related policies on the sub-national level as well as create stronger national policies. While this means policies may take longer to design and implement, the policies established will better reflect and support the needs of all.
Additionally, establishing policies at regional and local levels of government will help to assure increased monitoring and adherence to regulatory mechanisms such as quality control regulations.
3. More attention is being paid to quality control and infrastructure
Titus Oyoo of Kenya’s Bureau of Standards (KEBS) stated in the session that quality control is one of the largest concerns of consumers and is something that requires government facilitation.
With respect to infrastructure, Kenny Pasha, the managing director for Water and Sanitation for South Africa, pointed out that guidelines and regulations around facility design – especially regarding bathroom design – can help to further MHM aims.
Additionally, regulations around intra-Africa trade may become increasingly relevant, as Africa-based manufacturers of disposable and reusable menstrual products seek to sell their goods elsewhere on the continent.
4. Data expected by decision makers, but often lacking.
Political decision makers – even those who fully support menstrual hygiene work – tend to expect data to demonstrate the value of potential interventions. The challenge is that the data needed to develop and establish equitable and effective policies is often lacking. Developing interventions from both government and NGOs should include research mechanisms to learn more about effective and scalable solutions.
5. Incorporating MHM into educational curricula must include classrooms, while also going well beyond them.
Some of the panelists pointed out that when MHM information is included in curricula, educators are often unprepared to teach the material. That is partly because educators themselves generally come from the same communities as the schoolchildren, and therefore sometimes share the same menstruation taboos and stigmas. As such, curricular gaps should be identified, and then partnerships with Ministries of Education developed, for the joint educational design that includes effective teacher training prior to the start of any educational initiatives promoted by the government.
Additionally, speakers said that both formal and informal settings should ideally be utilized for MHM education. While school curricula are regulated by government agencies and thus tend to be prime spaces for effective systemic change, religious and other community leaders should also be engaged in MHM work in order to bring MHM education not just to the classroom but to the entire community.
5. Funding is needed now more than ever.
MHM programming has been disrupted in many places around the world due to increased operating costs, decreased funding, and disruptions to existing systems such as in-person schools. As a result, many think that menstrual needs may be higher than before (#PeriodsDontStopForPandemics).
Jen Rubli from Femme International pointed out that COVID-19 shut down funding for essential and primary services in Tanzania, leaving much of menstrual programming in a lurch.
Finding ways to increase funding through government and private sources tends to be a goal of most MHM organizations. Reminders were provided that an increase in political and public visibility for MH-related work can be a critical route to getting it on to government agendas.
While the primary focus of the webinar was menstrual equity as it relates to policy shifts and innovations, a number of other challenges also emerged during the call: boys and men need to be included more in MHM discussions; differently-abled individuals need more support than they are getting; stigma issues need to be better addressed; WASH infrastructure is key to MHM, and more product innovation is needed.
With a range of perspectives and backgrounds, the panelists each brought valuable ideas and perspectives on the strengths and challenges of MHM work in the policy field. Events such as these allow conversations and collaboration between NGOs, government officials, activists, and other actors across borders. By sharing stories and experiences, we can learn important lessons about successful approaches and areas for improvement as we work towards more equitable MHM outcomes in the policy field and beyond. And by recording these sessions and making them available after the fact, the learning can continue long after the event has ended.