(WOMENSENEWS)– After the top-ranked female British tennis player Heather Watson mentioned "girl things" (or her menstrual period) earlier this year, a number of working women piped up about the times they had rushed out of corporate board meetings, desperately hoping they hadn’t leaked onto their suit pants or skirts.
At least they had nearby toilets. Across the low-income regions of the world that’s not the case, although we don’t really know the extent of the problem since there isn’t any reliable research.
Rectifying this data shortage is something I hope World Bankers will consider tackling when they meet April 17-19 for their annual spring meeting in Washington, D.C.
The World Bank Group has led an effort to model the cost of inadequate sanitation. In India it concluded that inadequate sanitation costs the country’s economy $38.5 billion each year in health impacts and another $10 billion in lost productivity tied to poor access to sanitation facilities.
Those figures account for both men and women, but a modeling has never been done that targets inadequate facilities for menstruating girls and women. Given the rising female role in global workforces, it’s a significant issue.
We need this data to make economic arguments to push national governments, businesses and communities to improve the supply of water and toilets in workplaces.
Girls and women are working on farms, in marketplaces, in shops, in government office buildings and in factories and corporate offices across low-income countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America.
Although little evidence exists about what inadequate facilities are putting them through, we have some limited studies to provide a clue.
In 2006, Business for Social Responsibility in partnership with the David and Lucille Packard Foundation published a report identifying some of the health challenges that female factory workers face in Asia and Central America. This included inadequate hygiene, and led the organization to launch HERproject, now HERhealth, which focuses on building workplace partnerships in factories and farms between women and owners. The aim is partly to identify a return on the investment in women’s health so other business owners will provide for the needs of their female workers.
A few years ago I was meeting with a high-level government official in Tanzania who is exceedingly accomplished in the public health sphere. I mentioned my particular interest in exploring the needs of menstruating girls and women in the workforce, and he asked if perhaps I meant sanitary pads? I responded no, that I meant the simple availability of toilets nearby in government and other office buildings.
Being the thoughtful civil society member and public health researcher that he is, he conducted his own investigation into the issue later that day, and called me less than 24 hours later to share his utter astonishment. He’d asked a female member of the Tanzanian Parliament if menstruation was perhaps an issue for she and her colleagues. She responded, "Of course! We cannot always come to meetings on those days." He was astounded, asking me, "why do I hear all this talk about gender, and no one mentions the toileting needs of menstruating women?" That is the question that needs to be answered.
I hope the World Bank Group will take up the matter and do some costing.
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