A lively panel discussion was held at the MenstruAction Summit to discuss the progress made so far in Nepal on menstrual health management (MHM) and how to tackle remaining challenges.
A panel discussion chaired by TV presenter and former Miss Nepal, Malvika Subba, considered the progress made so far on healthy and safer menstruation and the challenges ahead, and asked ‘are we on the right track? On the panel were Bandana Rana, Nepal’s Committee Member for the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; Sushma Dahal, a researcher at Nepal’s National Health Research Centre; Ruby Raut, Nepali founder of the new start-up WUKA reusable period pants company currently based in the UK ; Sama Shrestha, Nepal representative at UN Women and Tazeen Hossain, Youth Programme Manager for the British Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) in Bangladesh.
‘It made me feel like an outcast’
Malvika Subba started the discussion by sharing her own experiences of being banned from the kitchen at her in-laws’ house when she got her first period after getting married. ‘It made me feel like an outcast and I started to fight against it. I’m a modern, educated, urban woman – had never faced such discrimination before. It made me realise how hard it must be for others in Nepal.’
She described such discrimination and harmful practices as a form of mental harassment and called for research to be commissioned to generate better data about the long-term social, economic and health impacts of these beliefs and circumstances.
The panellists agreed that, despite the progress made so far, there was still a need to raise awareness about the issues and campaign for improved facilities and products. As well as working with government Ministries, local service providers, clinics and teachers, young people needed to be empowered to address these issues. Laws and policies were important, but real behavioural change could only come from the communities themselves.
Nepal shows other countries how to break the silence
Tazeen Hussein said that it was encouraging to see the activism in Nepal compared to her own country Bangladesh. Although Chhaupadi was not practiced in Bangladesh, she said that there was still a lot of discrimination and silence about menstruation. Many Moslem women (especially in rural areas) also faced restrictions, such as not being able to enter the mosque during their menstruation.
Building up a local industry for menstrual hygiene products
Ruby Raut from WUKA Pants grew up in Nepal, but moved to the UK eight years ago. ‘When I was twelve I had my first period and I was sent to my aunts’ house for seven days, where I was almost treated like a prisoner. In school we had a common squat toilet. We had no pads so had to use sari rags, and when these fell off or leaked, it was very embarrassing so we stopped coming to school.’ As a result, when she moved to the UK eight years ago she decided that she wanted to set up a company producing reusable period pants that were both environmentally friendly and comfortable to wear ‘so that no girl has this experience’. She said that with time she hoped she would be able to manufacture the pants in Nepal, and appealed for the government to abolish or lower the current 20% ‘luxury item’ tax on imported menstrual products.
Inclusive policies and coordination are needed to make a difference
Sama Shrestha from UN women said that Menstrual Hygiene Management is a crucial issue for women’s empowerment and equality, and harmful practices and social norms needed to be addressed through policy change and coordinated efforts by partner organisations. These programmes should also be inclusive of all groups, including disabled and LGBTI people, so that all those affected should feel secure and not suffer discrimination, indignities and discomfort.
More research is needed
Sushma Dahal from Nepal’s National Health Research Centre (NHRC) said that broader and better research was needed to understand the scale of the problems women face. She said that many small-scale research projects had been conducted by a variety of organisations, but many of these were poorly designed and badly co-ordinated. As a result, the NHRC has begun to gather data for the first national mental health survey, which included questions about the adverse effect on women of discrimination during menstruation. Three Provinces had been surveyed so far, but is hoped to scale up the survey to cover the whole country.
The panel also discussed how to improve access to sustainable menstrual products and manage waste in an environmentally-friendly way. The consensus was that women would be able to recognise and own their own problems and that young girls and men need to be involved in the debate about MHM as it is a human rights issue.