March 11, 2024
Social Justice
Larissa Balzer, Sr. Network Coordinator

Breaking Taboos: The Intersection of Menstrual Hygiene and Sewage Pollution

As we delve into sewage pollution, it becomes clear that comprehensive solutions are needed to address both environmental concerns and the unique challenges faced by women in managing menstrual hygiene.

Estimated read time: 2.5 minutes

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, certain habits like flushing tampons or pads down the toilet seem like a quick, convenient solution. Yet, what many don't realize is the far-reaching impacts such actions can have on our sewage systems and eventually, our aquatic ecosystems. As we explore the nuances of sewage pollution, it becomes evident that women, especially those grappling with menstrual hygiene challenges, bear a unique burden.

Navigating the Flush Dilemma

The call to refrain from flushing anything beyond the 'three P's (poop, pee, and toilet paper)' reverberates through public service announcements and bathroom signs across the world. While the convenience of flushing tampons and pads may seem tempting, it poses a significant risk to our sewage infrastructure. According to Bri Nakamura, an expert at the Water Environment Federation, even seemingly harmless items like tampons can accumulate, contributing to catastrophic blockages known as "fatbergs."

Sewer blockages not only disrupt sewage systems but also pose serious environmental threats, forming massive build-ups of waste known as "fatbergs," which can cause pipes to clog, break and eventually harm aquatic ecosystems and contribute to pollution.

In navigating the complexities of menstrual hygiene, it's crucial to explore alternatives to traditional menstrual products like tampons and pads. Beyond the environmental implications of flushing these products, many women and girls face barriers to accessing them altogether. This disparity underscores the importance of raising awareness about alternative menstrual health products and encouraging individuals to explore options that are not only eco-friendly but also more accessible and sustainable in the long run.

The Menstrual Hygiene Conundrum

Menstrual health and hygiene management are a daily challenge for many women and girls worldwide. Stigma, poverty, and inadequate access to basic facilities exacerbate the challenges faced by those menstruating. According to UNICEF, the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and proper sanitation facilities perpetuates cycles of poverty and compromises the well-being of women and girls. The repercussions extend beyond mere inconvenience, impacting education, work, and overall empowerment.

Women at the Heart of Water 

In addition to their unique hygiene challenges, women and girls bear the brunt of water collection responsibilities in low-income nations, where they often trek long distances to obtain clean drinking water. UNICEF reports that women are primarily responsible for water collection in seven out of ten households without onsite water supplies, with girls under 15 also shouldering a disproportionate burden. This not only robs them of time for education and leisure, but also exposes them to physical dangers and health risks.

Bridging the Gap

The challenges surrounding menstrual hygiene are multifaceted, but low-income regions are often impacted the most.  While the debate over flushing tampons highlights the strain on sewage infrastructure in mid-to high-income nations, it's imperative to recognize the intersectionality of socioeconomic factors that exacerbate menstrual hygiene challenges for women and girls in lower-income countries. This intersectionality further underscores the need for comprehensive solutions that prevent environmental degradation from sewage pollution while also addressing social dimensions of improving access to safe menstrual hygiene.

Connecting the Dots

The threads of systemic oversight of sewage pollution and safe access to toilets for menstrual hygiene are intricately intertwined and underscore the need for holistic solutions that address the unique challenges faced by women. The repercussions of improper wastewater and sewage disposal extend far beyond clogged pipes; they seep into the fabric of societal norms, perpetuating inequalities and compromising the health and dignity of women and girls globally.

Charting a Path Forward

As we strive for universal access to safely managed drinking water, sanitation, and basic hygiene services by 2030 (SDG 6), it is imperative to integrate gender considerations into water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) policies and programs. By dismantling taboos surrounding menstrual health, investing in proper sanitation infrastructure, and fostering awareness about the impacts of sewage pollution, we can pave the way for a more equitable and sustainable future—one where women and girls are not only empowered but also respected stewards of our environment.