Image: The Last Taboo research team including study leader Lisa Natoli (front, second from left)
A landmark study into menstrual hygiene in the Pacific has recommended a strengthening of awareness and education to improve knowledge and challenge harmful taboos and beliefs around menstruation.
Entitled The Last Taboo, the study identifies many of the challenges faced by women and adolescent girls in Fiji, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Solomon Islands (SI) to manage their menstruation effectively and with dignity, and the negative impacts on their health and participation in school, work and community life.
Commissioned and funded by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including its InnovationXchange, the study was undertaken in partnership with WaterAid and the International Women’s Development Agency.
Led by Burnet Research Fellow Lisa Natoli, The Last Taboo is the first multi-country study in the Pacific to focus on menstrual hygiene management.
Among the key findings:
- Many adolescent girls, particularly in PNG and SI, lack comprehensive knowledge about menstruation and are often unprepared for their first period, which can lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment
- Menstruating women and girls are often considered to be dirty and unclean, creating stigma
- Teasing and harassment by boys when girls are menstruating contributes to feelings of humiliation and embarrassment, and may negatively impact on girls' attendance at school
- In SI there is a considerable lack of good quality sanitary products and the ones that are available are prohibitively expensive for many women and girls
- In all countries, many girls and women lack access to appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities. These challenges are heightened for people with physical disabilities.
Research team member, Burnet Women’s and Children’s Health Officer Yasmin Mohamed, said a key recommendation to strengthen peer awareness, advocacy, education, and access to high quality information in all three countries would help to improve knowledge and challenge existing discriminatory beliefs and attitudes.
Other recommendations include improving the design and management of WASH facilities to meet the needs of menstruating women and girls with a particular focus on safe disposal. The abolition of taxes on sanitary products would help to improve affordability in SI.
“In all countries there were particular groups of women and girls who found the products unaffordable,” Ms Mohamed said.
“This was particularly difficult for adolescent girls who are reliant on family members to give them money, women and girls living in rural areas, women living with a disability and those engaged in informal employment with a smaller disposable income.
“All of the recommendations in this report need to be underpinned by a human rights approach, to ensure that the voices of women and girls are central to any decision-making in this area.”
Ms Mohamed said she was excited by the positive reception of key stakeholders, supporters and NGOs with interests in this field at a recent workshop to identify practical actions in response to the report findings.
“A comprehensive solution is what’s needed and that requires a collaborative response,” Ms Mohamed said.
“There’s not one specific thing that will fix this, but there are organisations that are already doing good work in Australia and the Pacific setting up women-led businesses making reusable pads, for example.
“I do think this issue is becoming a much bigger topic globally, and it’s getting much more public attention than it used to, and that’s a very good sign.
“From the participants at the workshop, there’s a lot of passion, a lot of enthusiasm to drive this issue forward.”
LISTEN to Yasmin Mohamed and Lisa Natoli discuss their research with ABC Radio’s Pacific Beat program.