Improving menstrual hygiene management, or MHM, is one of the more frustrating global health and development challenges. First, because it’s a critical area that is not just woefully underfunded, but often under-discussed. And second, because there are so many workable solutions that are fairly easy to implement and scale.
- MenstruationFrustration: Why Don't More Funders Care About This Key Global Issue?
- Menstruation Holds Back Millions of Poor Women. Does This Outfit Have a Solution?
MHM presents global health and development difficulties on multiple fronts ranging from social and cultural taboos to the lack of water and sanitation facilities. Another major roadblock in this space is the cost of sanitary pads.
In many least-developed countries, that cost is prohibitive and can be as high as a half-day’s wages for a single package of pads. It’s easy to understand why women forgo sanitary pads in favor of buying food and milk for their families. In the absence of pads, women and girls often use poor and unhygienic substitutes like old rags or cotton wool, pages from books—basically, just about anything they can get their hands on, hygiene health be damned. The problem is that those unsanitary substitutes lead to higher rates of reproductive and urinary tract infections.
Solutions to the global MHM problem are a bit slow to scale, as we've discussed before. But one funder attacking the challenge at a very basic, but extremely important level, is International Medical Outreach (IMO).
Earlier this year, Sue Price, IMO's executive director, began talking to Iracan Charity, a young midwife working at Zeu Health Center in Uganda. Charity is also a volunteer at Bethel Junior School in Zeu, discussing the importance of self-care and hygiene with the over 140 girls boarded at the school.
The problem at Bethel was that girls were skipping class when they had their periods, which is a major issue in poorer countries and represents another factor that undermines girls' educational achievement. Periods are the No. 1 reason why girls in such countries miss multiple days of school each year. Many girls drop out of school altogether once they begin menstruating. In this way, MHM is far more than a personal issue; it has implications for developing a nation's human capital.
Sue Price had a simple, yet effective solution—a female hygiene packet that could be distributed to the girls at Bethel. IMO launched a pilot version of the packet earlier this year. The packet covers all of the MHM basics, here: a washcloth, soap, four reusable sanitary pads of various sizes, safety pins, a 16 ounce bottle of water, and a sealable plastic bag. While the initial focus of the project is the 140 or so girls attending Bethel Junior School, the pair have their sights set on the approximately 1,500 girls enrolled in primary schools within the parish.
Since it was established in 1993, IMO has concentrated its grantmaking and activities on combating infectious diseases like intestinal parasites, malaria and tuberculosis, to name a few. In that context, the jump to MHM doesn’t necessarily align with that grantmaking focus. But the ultimate goal of the foundation, according to Price, is “to collaborate with local partners” to help all people “reach their full potential through health.”
In recent years, IMO's giving has been largely focused on providing medical supplies and medications to communities in least-developed countries around the globe. But the more funders jumping into the MHM space the better.
The Gates Foundation has invested some $3 million in varying MHM projects over the past few years, and other major development funders like Ford have occasionally addressed the importance of MHM. The Caterpillar Foundation, which ties menstrual hygiene into its WASH and women and girls empowerment funding, is definitely a funder that gets this issue, while the Waterloo Foundation supports projects that “specifically seek to address menstrual hygiene management.”
So the MHM funding field isn’t exactly empty, but despite growing momentum and the progress made, it remains an overlooked issue in broader global health and development circles. Quite apart from sparse funder attention, MHM is rarely discussed by national and international development agencies.
This is an area of opportunity for foundations and philanthropists looking for gaps in a crowded global funding landscape. While MHM feels like a niche issue, it touches a lot of lives—over 2 billion women in the world get their periods every single month.