Periods don’t stop for pandemics: Bhutan realises menstrual health and hygiene breakthroughs in 2020

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Empowerment… dignity… solidarity… hope… love and care – five qualities that, similar to periods, are here to stay. Pandemic or no pandemic, the SNV team in Bhutan is continuing its annual partnership with government and non-government partners to reinforce calls for inclusive development this Menstrual Hygiene Day (MHD 2020). And, with partners, celebrate huge menstrual health and hygiene breakthroughs in Bhutan.

One week before MHD 2020, the Honourable Health Minister of Bhutan, Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo, announced that sanitary pads are now part of the country’s essential commodity list. Said the Minister, ‘Towards ensuring that primary public health issues are addressed, even during COVID-19 pandemic, we have ensured, upon the command of his Majesty the King, that sanitary pads are included in the essential commodity list and (shall) be available at all times to come.’

The Red Dobchu MHH bracelet

A fitting opening to Bhutan’s week-long menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) awareness-raising campaign, festivities and activities  are accompanied by the promotion of Menstrual Hygiene Bhutan’s take of this year’s menstruation bracelet. Bhutan’s bracelet goes beyond the bead symbolism of five days of menstrual bleeding (five red beads) within an average 28-day cycle duration (23 other-coloured beads). Called the Red Dobchu menstrual hygiene bracelet, each red bead represents the five qualities of empowerment, dignity, solidarity, hope, and love and care. Together, we’re making a stand for inclusive MHH today and every day.

Inclusiveness: the ‘red thread’ that cuts across this year’s MHH programming

Inclusiveness is a strong organising approach that informs this year’s committee’s week-long awareness-raising campaign, which is led by the Ministry of Education and supported by the Ministry of Health, UNICEF Bhutan and SNV.[1]

Based on studies carried out in Bhutan, the 'average' Bhutanese continue to have low MHH knowledge. MHH is taught as part of the science curriculum in schools, which is insufficient in addressing stigma and taboos around menstruation. Teachers, adults and elderly feel great discomfort talking about sexual and reproductive health and rights and as such, are barely scratching the surface to ‘break the silence’ around menstruation.

Where breakthroughs are being made – women and girls with disabilities are at risk of being left behind. For example, research in other countries has shown the importance of increasing understanding of menstrual cycle and the difficulties related to caring for menstruating girls with physical and/or psychological impairments. Caregivers require support and the knowledge to sensitively and patiently respond to the needs of menstruating girls with disabilities.

According to Tshering Choden, SNV in Bhutan’s Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor, ‘When we talk about menstrual health and hygiene, it is crucial to talk about the additional challenges faced by our women and girls with disabilities so that they are also able to manage their menstruation (or receive support to manage menstruation) in hygienic and dignified ways.’

To start the conversation on the specific needs of menstruating girls/women with disabilities, SNV facilitated the participation of Disabled Peoples’ Organisations (DPOs) in the technical working group of the MHD 2020 Committee.[2] With DPOs participating actively in the committee, this year’s activities are witnessing a considerable spike in MHH messages that benefit all people, including persons with disabilities (and their caregivers).

Breaking the ‘silence’ for a more inclusive development

The government’s recognition of menstruation as a primary public health issue emphasises that menstruation is a natural phenomenon and something to take pride in.

Among the activities being carried out from 18-28 May 2020 include,

  • The launch of the knowledge booklet, titled 'A knowledge book for menstrual health and hygiene' that complements other MHH interventions and knowledge gaps faced by girls and nuns. The booklet contributes to painting a positive picture of the experience of menstruation and to educate the wider public that periods are natural phenomena and something to be proud of.

  • National TV hosting of a Chikthuen programme on COVID-19 and MHH that brings together the chief of the government’s School Health and Nutrition Division, an MoE representative and a lecturer from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts who is also board member of a Disabled People’s Organisation in dialogue. Through this programme, we aim to reach elderly groups living in rural communities.

  • Numerous videos with inclusive messages of MHH solidarity from (non-) government officials, celebrities and the ‘average’ Bhutanese in social media, which are gaining a lot of attention among the younger generation.

Written by: Anjani Abella and Thinley Dem

Banner image: Illustrated by Ugyen Dorji, Bhutan

[1] Follow the official Menstrual Hygiene Bhutan page on FacebookInstagram, and TikTok
[2] SNV’s ongoing work with DPOs is supported by the Australian Government’s Water for Women Fund programme.