WSSCC’s Approach to Sanitation and Hygiene Challenges for Women: Executive Director Chris Williams on Voice of America

Date: 4th July 2017

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WSSCC’s Executive Director, Chris Williams spoke recently to American broadcaster, Voice of America (VOA) to draw attention to some of the sanitation challenges experienced by women, and to raise awareness of our work to improve sanitation policies.

Speaking on Menstrual Hygiene Day, May 28th, Dr Williams drew attention to the larger discussion of women’s empowerment through improved sanitation.

Listen to the interview here, or read the transcript below:

Chris Williams (CW): “I think all adolescents, girls in particular, are going through a really intense transformation of their lives, when a lot of things are happening at the same time. So even before we even get to the actual physical aspect, there are a lot of transitions that are occurring in terms of identity, roles, responsibilities, relationships with other women etc. For women who are at an older age for whom they have gone through this transition, menstrual hygiene is not something that is necessarily taken for granted, there are many constraints on women’s mobility due to the fact that the social norms that are associated with menstruation are prohibited in some locations, and also the facilities are not conducive for menstrual hygiene management”

VoA:  And this would include in many cases not being able to go to school or work or to travel, and  to suffer not just economically but also mentally as well?

CW: “I think the simplest way to say it is that it is a restriction on mobility and refinement of ones’ actions in ways that are not the case when women are not menstruating.

“The combination of the absence of basic services as well as social norms can prohibit movement. Part of it is social or societal norms entrenched over many generations that prohibit the movement of women, for example, when going to school during menstruation or even being in certain parts of the house or cooking, etc. There are also issues of the absence of basic facilities which prevents women from travelling, unable to take a journey at that time of the month, etc.”

VoA: On a physical level as well they may not have access to the necessary things that they need during that time of the month?

CW:  “People who are looking at this for the first time have to take a step back and consider that for both men and women there is often an absence of basic sanitation facilities.

“There are over a billion of people in the world who don’t use any form of sanitation and 2.4 billion who lack adequate sanitation, and this is both at the household level and also in public spaces. So, for example, even without menstruation if a woman is seeking to travel a long distance, there is no place for her to go in the car park or the transport hub, there are very few places for her to go along the way that are safe and secure, and then when she arrives at her destination she has to often deal with the absence of that.

“So women have to develop a series of coping strategies to both travel and accommodate the absence of these facilities, such as not drinking, not eating  or being very precise about when meals are had so that they don’t end up 12 hours later having to relieve themselves in a place with that absence. It’s an enormous constraint and these coping strategies have all kinds of negative effects on sexual reproductive health, on bodily function and on social norms.”

 VoA:  What type of things are you doing to help improve this situation?

CW: “The first step is to raise awareness; (talking about menstruation) is a taboo subject and so to trigger discussion about is an important first step – we call it ‘breaking the taboo’.  That can happen within governments at a policy level, it can involve groups of affected populations, women and girls. We document their experience to provide really good evidence for them to articulate (required) policy changes.

“So, part of it is just breaking the silence and giving voice and agency to those that are affected, they are often not part of policy discussion or programming. Based on that, we get into discussions with governments, and policy makers at various levels and civil servants, expose them to the issues –  not only the evidence but through systematic training that we do in this area to raise awareness.  We  then have that translate into both policy guidelines that can inform sanitation education and health policy across the spectrum.  We then get into creative programming and budgeting to reinforce that policy work.

“The last level is to get grassroots in orientation and develop the interchange programming and support in a number of governments so that millions of people can improve their sanitation and make sure that it is suitable for women,  both in schools and at household level,  as well as in public spaces.”

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