5th International Dignified Menstruation Day 2023 (Key Note Speech): Radha Paudel, Ph.D.

Namaste, Salam Alaikum, good morning, good afternoon, and good evening!

Distinguished guests, speakers, implementers, collaborators and event partners, Steering Committee and members of GSCDM, Executive Committee and members of DMC Nepal, members of the media, all participants who are joining here and online from around the globe,

All protocol observed.

Honestly, I am overwhelmed. Despite having so many challenges, we are celebrating the 5th International Dignified Menstruation Day globally. Each of you who stand for dignified menstruation, deserves huge congratulations. Let us have a big applause.

As a survivor of menstrual discrimination, as the person who coined and developed the theory around dignified menstruation, and, as the founder for GSCDM, I have many stories to share. Due to time constraints, I will be very brief and straightforward.

Let me begin with the description of three very simple and worldwide common practices.

Firstly, have you ever noticed that 6 year-old boys believe that menstrual blood is disgusting, or dirty? This stems implanted the seed of patriarchy unconsciously.  It also embeds the idea that men are superior beings. Concurrently, 6 year-old girls learn about discriminatory menstrual practices spontaneously through observation. A little girl knows that she will menstruate more or less 6 years later but also considers herself as inferior or starts to internalize and practice patriarchal hierarchies’ behaviors unconsciously.

The existing silence and ignorance around menstruation strengthens patriarchal practices and impacts all aspects such as politics, economic etc. of an individual’s life and societies. As a result, the menstruators get no or limited space in various levels of society. Menstruators, regardless of their location or identity, often face more violence. The home becomes a factory of violence because there is no discussion about menstrual discrimination. Menstrual discriminatory practices, including silence, is crucial in establishing unequal power relations and strengthening patriarchy.

Are our governments, academic institutions, activists, various projects, the UN and partners acknowledging such facts and address them accordingly? NO.

Secondly, menstruators are typically compensated less than non-menstruators.  Except when having babies, they often become the target of blame for weakness, mood swings, illness and cramps, symptoms generally related to menstruation and menopause.

Many of us blame patriarchy and forget to explore the underlying causes for unequal wages. While there are many reasons that explain unequal wages, the main cause is the absence of dignified menstrual perceptions and practices in the home, school, community, and workplace.  This is a systemic outcome of menstrual discrimination.

Do the decent work policies, activism around human rights attempt to unveil such bitter realities? NO.

Thirdly, you may overlook the fact that menstruators are not allowed to water flowers in many societies across the globe and you may convince yourself that this allows menstruators to rest. To me, according to the UN definition of SGBV that was published in 1993, this is perfect example of emotional violence and violation of rights of access to resources and services. I believe that many of your country’s Constitutions consider this is a violation of rights.  The rights to dignity, freedom, equality, mobility, participation, and all aspects of health, including mental health, are included in this. This is a direct, visible, and symptomatic impact of discriminatory menstrual practices and coined with systemic impact of menstrual discrimination

As a human right defender, do you think the international human rights instruments such as human right Declaration 1948 or CEDAW 1979 or SDG 2030 address such discriminatory menstrual practices? NO.

You may disagree with me and be disappointed because I say «NO», repeatedly time and time again. Let me briefly explain why I am saying NO.

If we agree that the definition of menstrual discrimination is an umbrella term that includes the taboos, stigma, shame, abuses, violence and denial of resources and services when blood is flowing from menstruators, throughout their life cycle, for all diversities, what are your deeds? Menstrual Discrimination has been practiced across the globe with different names, forms and magnitude for a long time. Have you calculated the number of discriminatory menstrual perceptions and practices you and your community are practicing now, daily, monthly and yearly, throughout a menstruator’s life cycle? And have you ever calculated the number of times and the breadth of rights violated? Probably no. Sorry for saying No again.

Menstrual blood has been deemed impure, dirty, or has made menstruators appear weak since the Vedic period, according to Aristotelian definition and in the present day. There have been various forms of discriminatory practices related to menstruation.  These are typically linked to and are justified by culture, religion, or prestige. Unfortunately, it is not only associated with silence and ignorance but also includes taboos, shyness, stigma, restrictions, abuses, deprivation from services and resources. More importantly, it impacts throughout the life cycle of menstruators in systemic and symptomatic manner as mentioned above.

The notion of «dignity of the human person» has been the most frequent intervention globally since 1948 but menstrual discrimination is still not acknowledged as a violation of human rights as discussed above. Recently, the word dignity has been used in conversation about menstruation but is not explained what it means? What are its indicators? What are the indicators or questions for health, education, infrastructure or climate justice and so on.

Likewise, the global efforts are focused for promoting women’s right through the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW since 1979.

Think about the many forms of menstrual discrimination you know about and how they have been addressed by CEDAW.  Is it just or appropriate to confine and narrow down the gravity and magnitude of menstrual discrimination by tucking it under traditional harmful practices? Menstrual discrimination is a form of SGBV and a cause and effect of SGBV.

More importantly, more than half of the population of this planet is occupied by menstruators and menstrual discriminatory practices are widespread across the globe in visible and invisible forms, in private and public spheres. They are not confined to a particular region, religion or ethnic group.

Our coalition has encouraged CEDAW’s committees to discuss menstrual discrimination as a standalone issue instead of merging it within the conversation linked to traditional harmful practices since the beginning. It is urgent and important to reverse the numbers of SGBV and substantive gender equality in all sectors and at all levels.

I observed that friends who are working tirelessly around Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Comprehensive Sexual Education raise their eyebrows because they claim to be work on dignified menstruation. Are you honest with yourself? Are you really exploring menstrual discrimination and its impact on people when you are having conversations around Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Comprehensive Sexual Education?

Dear friends, unintentionally, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights overlooks and does not explore the stories of suffering and undignified condition that arise due to menstrual discrimination and does not addressed it accordingly.

My career began with «the journey of reproductive health» where I learned about anatomy and physiology of reproductive organs, menstrual management, WASH related projects, period poverty, and menstrual health have this has created the space to discuss menstruation but has not succeeded to address the complex and multifaceted nature of menstrual discrimination and its systemic and symptomatic impact throughout the life cycle of menstruators.

With this in mind «dignified menstruation» becomes an innovative, holistic approach that addresses all forms of menstrual discrimination, in all sectors and levels because we can not imagine life without the presence of menstruators. Dignified menstruation is simply a vehicle to achieve gender equality, through a «gender transformative» approach. It is an entrance to loosen the knots and bolts around Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Comprehensive Sexual Education. More importantly, Dignified Menstruation is a prerequisite for achieving a more than nine Sustainable Development Goals, including promotion of human rights, inclusive democracy, and sustained peace. I guarantee you that overcoming the climate crisis is merely possible without incorporating dignified menstruation as a cross cutting theme. Without acknowledging the role of menstrual discrimination in the construction and socialization of unequal power construction and the reinforcement of patriarchy by all of us, the intervention for climate justice will look like watering a sandy hill.

Dear friends, let me now discuss this year’s theme: «Dignified menstruation is integral for ending sexual violence and child marriage».

Both sexual violence and child marriage are the byproducts of menstrual discrimination. Girls who are informed, educated and practice dignified menstruation, have self-esteem, self-dignity, and self-confidence and exercise their bargaining and negotiations skills at home. Their body and life choices are within their control, and they choose not to engage in sexual behaviors at home. They strengthen their skills and increase their knowledge and agency if they study in a dignified menstruation friendly school. They can resist being victims of sexual violence and refuse proposal for child or forced marriage. Without letting people know about being her menstruating in dignified manner, self-defense training is another activity that could rise her social status temporarily but not assure her personal choices relating to her body.

Here, I wanted to ask you again…have you ever calculated the mental trauma, feeling of humiliation and shame of a school girl menstruating. She needs to wake up at least 45 minutes earlier in the morning to manage her blood flow.  Due to menstrual restrictions, she struggles due to inaccessibility to books, water, clothes, and food. If she is in school, she usually sits at the back or on the dark side of the room, needs to be silent and support stigma, ignorance, and taboos, associated with menstruation.

She constantly is worried about leaking, and the ways to manage potential leaks. She fears teasing. She limits drinking and does not join sports or any other gatherings. Thus, her life at home, at school, and in the community is interrupted for 24 hours over a period of 5 days. In one year, she experiences 60 days of interruption due to various forms of menstrual discrimination. This is how, her health, education, social and political status are degraded. Eventually, she fails and drops out of school. She then is trapped to marry, with or without consent.  She consequently loses hope for educational and economic opportunities and encounters various forms of SGBVs. Recently, most of the global campaigns for ending child marriages have seen it as a consequence of poverty, gender inequality, preferences, trafficking, displacement, disasters, and pandemics.  These causes are the byproduct of menstrual discrimination though others factors also contribute.

In 2022, GSCDM reviewed the policies and campaigns on child marriage and found that menstrual discrimination is missing as a driver for about 100 years of long interventions in child marriage. These focus on providing bicycles, educational materials, scholarships, insurance, conditional cash transfer, income generating activities for parents, trainings for police, faith leaders, lawyers and parliamentarians, and investing in policies. It is unfortunate that the discussion on dignified menstruation is not part of this conversation.  Interventions tend to focus on responding to child marriages and concentrating on placing the blame and responsibility on others. It is true to some extent but without boosting their individual confidence from the age of 6 years-old, no girl can say no to child marriage and no boy could say that this is a crime and refuse to be grooms.

Ending child marriage is global priority now. Many countries have pledged to end child marriage by 2030 as Sustainable Development Goals. Sadly, most of networks and organizations who are working to end child marriage do not like to listen the long story of menstrual discrimination. If any of you are really committed to end child marriage, let us be ready to transform ourselves first, and work collectively by incorporating the dignified menstruation as an innovative strategy.

Dear friends, I do reiterate that the free distribution of menstrual pads or number of toilets are not dignified menstruation but important element of it. We need to include in the suite of Dignified Menstruation indicators. For instance, GSCDM proposed three P approach which means People or menstruators, Planet and Pocket.

In 2022, GSCDM mapped the global menstrual movement where there was focus on either products or infrastructure or WASH. It is high time to shift. To make products compatible with dignified menstruation, we need to adopt indicators of dignified menstruation. Depending on your expertise or resources, you should not limit to work around products or infrastructure or WASH but you should remember to put the menstrual dignity at the heart of your work. I repeat here, you should not forget to put the menstrual dignity at center.

I would like to remind everyone to use the menstrual dignity lens as a human rights lens when working on anything related to menstruation. To do this, simply use the formula: menstrual talk, dignity first.

Let’s be open, transparent, honest and learn from our past. There is no time like now to initiate the dialogue on dignified menstruation. Let’s shout out collectively and lobby with governments, the UN and partners to change the narrative around menstruation, gender equality, and inclusion.

I appeal to UN for endorsing December 8th as Dignified Menstruation Day which we have been promoting for the last 4 years. As many of you are aware, good will ambassador of GSCDM, Sangita Rokaya, escalated Mount Everest and Mount Manaslu to draw the attention of the UN to endorse 8th December as Dignified Menstruation Day. She is planning to climb a total 14 mountains which are more than 8000 meters high globally. Additionally, GSCDM also handed over the appeal to the Honorable Antonio Gutierrres, Secretary- General of the United Nations through Nepal’s Foreign Minister on October 18, 2023.

I urge all governments, media, academia, donors, activists, NGOs, and everyone else, who is working on menstruation, inclusion, empowerment, democracy, and climate justice etc., to name a few incorporate dignified menstruation as a cross cutting theme. I hope that the resources needed to shift in research, training, revision of policies and strategies to include dignified menstruation particularly in the global south.

Please do review your policies on: Gender equality and Social Inclusion, Safeguards, Human Resource and Finance to include dignified menstruation as action for not only in the socio cultural realm but also as targets to achieve economic and political outcomes.

Whether you believe it or not, Dignified Menstruation is a milestone for the fourth wave feminism who seeks greater gender equality by focusing gendered norms and the marginalization of women in society. Our objective is to disrupt the discourse on human rights and development that has been in existence for 76 years.  There will be resistance to adopting Dignified Menstruation as a foundation for Human Rights. In any case, I have witnessed that the new generation will not wait for generations and generations before they can experience their menstruations with dignity.

I also like to announce that the GSCDM will be facilitating the session in World Social Forum 2024 in Kathmandu, Nepal under the theme entitled  `Dignified Menstruation: Decolonization of Menstrual Movement and Reimagining the Feminism, scheduled for 11.30 am, on February 16th 2024. We look forward to seeing you all there.

Last but not least, I do appeal to global leaders to listen to the stories from global south and exercise their leadership to correct the course of gender equality, human right and development.

Happy 5th International Dignified Menstruation Day.

Dignified Menstruation is everyone’s responsibility.

Thank you.