Challenge period taboo to transform women's lives across the world - Nicky Morgan MP
Joint FCO-DFID minister Rory Stewart MP and Nicky Morgan MP were among the speakers at a fringe meeting titled: ‘Challenging the period taboo: how ‘taps and toilets’ transform the lives of women and girls’.
You would be excused for thinking you had entered the wrong building when walking into the WaterAid and the Conservative Women’s Organisation’s reception on period taboos. Yet this was indeed taking place at the Conservative Party Conference. Nicky Morgan, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, rightly reflected that holding an event on periods a couple of years ago here would be unthinkable, and yet here she was speaking to a packed room.
“Changing the role of girls and women really advances a society,” said Nicky Morgan “that’s how you make a difference, by giving opportunities to girls and young women.”
Talking about taps, toilets and periods isn’t glamorous. Yet we must talk about them, break these taboos and take action, if we are to transform the lives of women and girls and ensure they can take control of their own lives.
Ms Morgan, the ex-minister for Women and Equalities, added that access to clean water, toilets and sanitary products are all things “we take for granted”. And while it might be easier to talk about Brexit, she quipped, access to safe water and menstrual hygiene are subjects that must be discussed.
Currently, 1 in 10 people in the world still don’t have clean water and 1 in 3 don’t have a toilet. WaterAid is therefore calling on the UK Government to use its global influence and become a global water, sanitation and hygiene leader.
The audience was left raptured minutes later, after an address by 16-year-old Therese Mendy. Ms Mendy, a youth ambassador for the Send my Friend to School campaign, recounted visiting a rural school in Gambia with 500 students and only one toilet and one tap. Under these conditions, children would have to walk 3km in the bush to find water, returning with a full barrel carried on their heads. Parents would even keep their daughters out of school when menstruating due to a lack of privacy. By improving access to clean water and sanitation, more young girls will receive the education they need, Ms Mendy said.
“Education is not a privilege but a basic human right. Every child in the world has the right to go to school. So, it is of great importance for a child to get educated,” she declared.
It is therefore shocking to discover that nearly one-third of schools worldwide, and over 50% of schools in sub-Saharan Africa, don’t have clean water. Women and girls are overwhelmingly responsible for water collection, preventing millions from attending work or school. Moreover, those that do manage to attend school are often forced to drop out when they start their periods due to a lack of decent toilets where they can change their menstrual cloths and stay clean.
Tom Palakudiyil, Regional Director for South Asia, WaterAid, spoke next and began by reflecting that “for many people menstruation is not a window of opportunity, but more like a trap door. It is a tap door into which they fall and then they are condemned to live a life of fear, life of indignity, life of embarrassment.” Mr Palakudiyil added that “it is also true that it is possible to address what is causing this, what is preventing women from realising their rights and living a life of dignity and a healthy life. Obviously, the challenges are with regard to ignorance, superstition, traditional practices. There are also obstacles related to absence of basic facilities.”
Yet progress is being made, Mr Palakudiyil cited positive developments across the globe in breaking the period taboo, such as the recent criminalisation of the ancient practice of chauppaudi in Nepal, that banishes women and girls from their homes and communities when they are having their periods.
In conclusion, Mr Palakudiyil said: “Water and sanitation is important and it is an essential ingredient of success in several other areas when you’re talking about gender equality, when you’re talking about health and wellbeing, when you’re talking about equality of education. This is the foundation without which life cannot be complete.”
Lastly, Minister Rory Stewart, responded on behalf of the Government. He said that in politics, it’s essential to keep idealism alive while also recognising the complexities.
“Let’s take water for an example. We are here at an amazing event, which has shown how important water is, has shown that water is the stuff of life, has shown that without water there’s no point giving food to someone, because they’ll die of diarrhoea, that without water children can’t go to school, that without water you can’t have agriculture, that without water you can’t have industry.” Adding that “Water; unbelievably important, one of the 16 most important things in the world. Water, stuff of life, but water very, very complicates it.”
The audience left the reception enlightened about the crucial role that water and toilets play in transforming the lives of women and girls, yet acutely aware that more needs to be done. No girl should be held back due to the lack of something as simple as clean water and toilets. They deserve better.