Menstruation is as normal as breathing. Yet around the world the issue continues to be neglected at all levels, resulting in persisting taboos and stigma and lack of access to information about menstruation, period products and adequate infrastructure. The negative consequences for women and girls(1) are dire, including missed educational and income-earning opportunities, health conditions, and persisting gender inequalities. In short, menstrual health and hygiene is clearly critical for women and girls to be able to enjoy their human rights.
Existing human rights that include obligations related to menstrual health and hygiene
A range of human rights that are guaranteed in binding international treaties include clear human rights obligations related to menstrual health and hygiene.
The right to equality and non-discrimination and gender equality are the foundation of all human rights law. Discrimination in the enjoyment of rights is prohibited and identifying and removing existing inequalities is a duty that cuts across all human rights treaties. Social norms that stigmatise and exclude women and girls because they menstruate are discriminatory, perpetuate gender inequality and underpin structural exclusion.
More specifically, the human rights to health, education, water and sanitation as well as work all include human rights obligations that are relevant to menstrual health and hygiene.
- The right to health, for example, not only includes the right to healthcare and medicine when needed, but also covers access to health-related education and information, including on sexual and reproductive health.(2)
- The right to education guarantees free and compulsory primary education and generally available and accessible secondary education for all (3) – which cannot be enjoyed when students are required to stay at home during their period or can’t change period products in school sanitation facilities. This also shows the relevance of the rights to water and sanitation for the topic.
- The right to education is also understood to include “initiating and supporting measures, attitudes and activities that promote healthy behaviour by including relevant topics in school curricula (…) in the context of adolescent health and development”.(4)
These human rights are contained in international human rights treaties that are legally binding for the vast majority of UN member states: 171 countries are obliged to realise rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has 189 state parties, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child is binding for 196 countries.
Menstrual health and hygiene also increasingly feature in resolutions negotiated by UN member states.
- In resolutions on the human rights to water and sanitation, states recognise the importance of these rights to enable women and girls to manage their menstruation. They also highlight the importance of addressing stigma and taboos related to menstruation – and of education in this regard.(5)
- Most recently, a Human Rights Council resolution has mandated the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to convene a panel discussion on menstrual hygiene management, human rights and gender equality, scheduled for June 2022.(6)
So, why isn’t there a human right to menstrual health and hygiene?
International human rights are created by states recognising such rights in accordance with strict criteria laid down in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the processes for the recognition of new rights often take decades.
In short, human rights can be created through international treaties or customary international law. At present, there is no evidence for a human right to menstrual health and hygiene in international treaty law, neither is there evidence in customary law. Applying the relevant legal criteria laid down in the Vienna Convention, one has to conclude that there is no human right to menstrual health and hygiene.
However, that really doesn’t make a difference because the human rights obligations related to menstrual health and hygiene included in existing human rights such as the rights to education, health, water and sanitation and work give advocates and activists all the legal arguments they need to push for change in menstrual health and hygiene right now.
Given the strong human rights obligations outlined above, pushing for the recognition of a self-standing right to MHH is neither necessary nor strategic.
What’s correct to state and what isn’t?
It’s correct to state that “menstruation or menstrual health and hygiene is a human rights issue or a matter of human rights”.
It’s incorrect to state that “menstruation or menstrual health and hygiene is a human right”.
Where can I read more ?
For more in-depth information read Understanding Menstrual Hygiene Management & Human Rights – a joint report by Human Rights Watch and WASH United.
(2) See UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14, The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, (2000) para. 11.
(3) See Article 13 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 10 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Articles 28, 29 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Article 26 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
(4) See UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 4, Adolescent health and development in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, (2003) para. 17.
(5) See UN General Assembly resolution A/Res/76/153 on the human rights to water and sanitation as the most recent example.
(6) UN Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/Res/47/4 on menstrual hygiene management, human rights and gender equality