Menstruation: a vital topic for ensuring human rights in Latin America

Washington, D.C.; May 28, 2021.- To mark Menstrual Hygiene Day, celebrated worldwide on May 28th, the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) held a virtual panel with Latin American activists and experts who discussed menstruation and its relationship with human rights. The panel also launched the new report Menstruation and Human Rights in Cuba, written and published by the Cuban civil society organization Plataforma Femenina (Women’s Platform).

The panel began with a presentation of Menstruation and Human Rights in Cuba, which discusses the obstacles that women, adolescent and young girls, and other menstruating people face in accessing menstrual hygiene products. The report offers recommendations to the State of Cuba regarding the need to provide the conditions for menstruating with dignity. From there, the panelists discussed how greater understanding of menstruation and menstruating people’s needs should lead to greater fulfillment of their human rights, particularly their economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights.

Christina Fetterhoff, Race and Equality’s Director of Programs, opened the panel and explained the growing use of the term “menstrual hygiene” among United Nations bodies such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNWomen, UNICEF, and the UN Population Fund. Nonetheless, she invited the panelists to use the term they considered most adequate and with which they felt most comfortable during their presentations.

Menstruation in Cuba

Eroises González, national coordinator of Plataforma Femenina, explained that menstruation is difficult for many Cubans due to limited availability of menstrual pads and other hygiene products. Officially, only 10 pads, which are of poor quality, are sold per woman each month; this ration is insufficient for many women’s menstrual periods.

Women with disabilities or who are deprived of their liberty face even greater difficulties. In both cases, they must rely on family members to acquire hygiene products, which is further complicated by Cuba’s economic situation. González emphasized that these difficulties can lead to an “ordeal” for women who begin their menstrual periods without necessary products.

The report and the panel’s discussion recognized that the United States’ economic embargo of Cuba affects the availability of products such as hygiene supplies while also pointing out that according to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “the imposition of sanctions does not in any way nullify or diminish the relevant obligations of that State party. As in other comparable situations, those obligations assume greater practical importance in times of particular hardship.”

The report closes with eight recommendations for the State of Cuba, including the passage and implementation of a law to ensure free and equal access to menstrual hygiene products. The report also recommends greater integration of this issue with Cuba’s existing commitments under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly regarding health and well-being, education, gender equality, and clean water and hygiene.

“An issue of equality”

Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), remarked that menstrual hygiene is an issue of gender equality and that factors such as gender stereotypes, extreme poverty, and emergency contexts make menstruation into a source of stigma, violating the rights of people who menstruate to equality and non-discrimination.

Macaulay, the Commission’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Women and on the Rights of Afro-Descendant People, stated, “Studies demonstrate that when girls cannot manage their menstrual period adequately, their attendance and performance at school are affected, which in turn affects their participation in society and generates inequality.” Macaulay also pointed out that the World Health Organization and UNICEF both define “adequate management” of menstrual periods as the ability to use sanitary hygiene products that can be changed in private, access to soap and clean water to wash oneself, and proper facilities for disposing of used products. She reiterated that States are obligated to ensure access to these requirements.

Inclusive and comprehensive initiatives

Santiago Balvin, a trans-masculine activist and member of the Peruvian organization Rosa Rabiosa (Fierce Rose), discussed menstruation from the perspective of trans men, trans-masculine people, and non-binary people assigned a female sex at birth. Santiago began by stating that for many members of these groups, practically “sexual and reproductive rights don’t exist,” as these rights are typically addressed only from a cis-gendered point of view.

“Not all people who menstruate are women, and it’s necessary to understand that for trans and non-binary people, menstruation is not only an issue of bodily comfort, but a key question for their identities,” said Balvin, emphasizing that even the simple act of buying menstrual hygiene products can cause non-binary people to suffer attacks on their psychological and social well-being, due to not being treated in accordance with their gender by others.

Andrea Marín, a menstrual therapist from Colombia, spoke from her professional experience about how to achieve a more comprehensive approach to menstruation. She remarked that, “These spaces are necessary because we need opportunities to name, reflect on, and question our different understandings of human flourishing, and to develop new ones, because we all have different relationships with our bodies, our menstrual cycles, and our environments.”

Marín stated that an important first step is to speak openly about menstruation in order to improve society’s understanding of it, speaking about it in both private and public spaces “to have a place where it can be explored, made visible, and thereby create guarantees through public policies.” She summed up her perspective by stating that menstruation should be informed, safe, and free, with menstruating people enjoying health information, hygiene products, and the freedom to make decisions.

Anahí Rodríguez, the founder of MenstruaciónDignaMéxico (Dignified Menstruation Mexico), argued that for a natural physiological process, that many people experience roughly monthly over forty years of their lives, to be unaddressed in public policies in “unbelievable.” Because of this failure, she stated, menstruation is often an occasion of human rights violations, including violations of the rights to health, education, and the fundamental right to non-discrimination.

“We have to speak strongly and clearly, tackling the challenges that women and other menstruating people face during our periods. It should be an imperative for States to provide every person with the right to menstruate in a hygenic, intimate, comfortable, safe, healthy, and dignified way,” said Rodríguez, pointing out that 40% of Mexican women live in poverty, 36% of people in Mexico do not have daily access to clean water, and 10% have no access to sanitation.

Race and Equality recognizes that women, adolescent and young girls, and other menstruating people across Latin America and the Caribbean face serious obstacles to a dignified menstrual cycle, and that these obstacles prevent them from fully enjoying and exercising their human rights. Therefore, we join civil society across the region in demanding that States create and implement public policies to ensure access to menstrual hygiene products. We also call on the international community to monitor this situation and support the recommendations made by civil society to improve it.

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