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Unsafe disposal of menstrual hygiene products: not simply a ‘woman’s issue’

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Have you ever stopped to wonder why menstrual hygiene management (MHM) matters? What type of products girls and women use, and how these are disposed of? Every month, in Tanzania, menstrual products such as disposable and homemade sanitary pads and cloths, end up in pit latrines.

With the Government of Tanzania [1], SNV—under the WASH SDG programme—is helping to avert what could potentially spiral into a health and environmental crisis. To gain a better understanding of the gravity and complexity of sanitation behaviours in Tanzania, SNV conducted a Baseline Study in 2018, in Arusha and Shinyanga. The research endeavour was part of the WASH SDG inception phase, which identified two sanitation and hygiene behaviours requiring urgent attention to help advance Tanzania’s National Sanitation Campaign. These include: 1) unsafe emptying and illegal connections to drains; and 2) disposal of solid waste into pits, including menstrual hygiene products.

Baseline results: solid waste management, with focus on menstrual products

SNV’s 2018 WASH SDG baseline study found that 95% of all households in Arusha, and 69% of all households in Shinyanga continue to practise the unsafe disposal of menstrual hygiene products. Of this, 7% of Arusha’s households and 28% of Shinyanga’s households throw pads into pits. And, 31% of all households in Arusha, and 7% in Shinyanga don’t have access to MHM facilities.

Withstanding the test of time: unsafe menstrual pad disposal

The conflation of social, structural, and systemic issues have made unsafe disposal practice withstand the test of time, finds the 2018 Formative Research, published by Arusha City Council and Shinyanga Municipal Council with SNV in Tanzania and WASH SDG [2].

For example, (gendered) norms, beliefs and attitudes have created generations and generations of menstruating girls and women with their heads bowed down in shame. These have not only affected the way girls and women deal with their menstruation. But, these have also contributed to limited investments and know-how in creating an informed public to diffuse the social stigma against menstruation, and promote safe MH disposal. These manifest in many ways:

  • menstrual products are thrown into pits, or wrapped in paper or plastic, and deposited in roads and rivers during the evenings by girls and women;

  • MHM continues to be a woman’s issue, despite continued educational efforts: menstruating girls are kept away from school, from seeing their father, or are only allowed to talk about the issue with girls and women; and/ or

  • menstruation is traditionally seen as ‘dirty’ and considered ‘shameful’: some girls/ women had been seen burning their clothing stained with menstrual blood (instead of washing them), or superstitions such as (accidentally) touching pads will cause infertility still persist.

Breaking away from unsafe pad disposal practice

No girl or woman should ever have to manage their period without access to sanitary menstrual and hygiene products, and a facility/ place to safely dispose waste. But, clearly, MHM is not only a woman’s issue and responsibility. It is an issue that:

  • affects everyone: unsafe disposal of waste affects the entire population, and

  • demands a collective response: because redressing the social, structural and systemic issues involves all of us.  

Contributing to efforts to improve personal and environmental health and hygiene, SNV’s citywide Urban Sanitation and Hygiene for Health and Development (USHHD) approach is being implemented across 19 cities in five countries. The USHHD approach—implemented by SNV in its WASH SDG Programme—“aims to change the way in which human waste is being managed—ensuring that this encompasses all parts of the sanitation service delivery chain”.

Prepared by: Mia Villalonga with Anjani Abella

Notes [1] Within the African region, Tanzania is a known pioneer in advancing menstrual health policy. In 2018, Tanzania was among the first countries in the region to lift value added tax (VAT) in imported sanitary products (also known as the 'pink tax'). Almost a year after, the impact of VAT exemption is now under review. Read SNV’s Anna Bwana’s opinion piece, Why the VAT exemption on menstrual pads should be kept —written on behalf of the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) consortium in Tanzania—to learn about ongoing debate and standpoints on the issue. [2] Contact Olivier Germain, SNV in Tanzania's WASH Sector Leader, for a copy of the (internal) Formative Research 2019.

Original text from SNV Tanzania:

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