Unleashing the Potential of a New Generation


A woman fills a glass of water up from the tap.

Schoolgirls in South Africa pose proudly in the girl's bathroom of their school, made possible in part by a Water for Schools World Cup project supported by Coca-Cola.
Photo Credit: Brent Stirton, Verbatim Agency/Water and Development Alliance

Young people around the world are facing unprecedented economic challenges, demographic pressures, and climate threats. Poor menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) can only make things worse. Menstrual-related myths and taboos, combined with sparse access to products and services, can exclude young menstruators from participating fully in the workplace, learning, and family and community activities. This exclusion can make it near impossible for them to pursue their life goals and contribute to the development of their communities.

The voices of young people often go unheard. But, investing in them and in their right to represent their own interests is critical in advancing the safety, health, and dignity of all menstruators.

Taking an inclusive approach 

USAID’s Youth Excel program supports youth-led and youth-serving organizations to address the critical issues that they care about and to design and conduct their own locally-led research. In Malawi and Zambia, five organizations sought to better understand which MHH interventions are working effectively in their schools and communities, which are not, and why. Now, these organizations- the Archdiocese of Lilongwe Catholic Health Commission, Days for Girls, He/R Liberty Malawi, Amos Youth Centre and Copper Rose in Zambia- can not only strengthen their own programs, but they are making recommendations on  how to strengthen broader MHH programming.

Influencing the development agenda with youth-led research

The researchers at Zambia’s Amos Youth Centre organization shared that the most valuable part of their participation in Youth Excel “was the data collection from the program participants — namely the focus group discussions, surveys, and interviews.” They added that these interactions helped shed light on how MHH interventions are performing, saying “the project team had a chance to have impactful discussions about the program and products being distributed, which is vital to program evaluation.”

Takeaways from all five organizations’  research reaffirmed key tenets of USAID’s approach to menstrual health and hygiene — that knowledge about menstruation is lacking, myths and stigma are common, and all menstruators should have access to free menstrual hygiene products to remove a key barrier to engaging in school activities without interruption. The researchers further observed:

  • Parents and community leaders may perpetuate harmful menstruation-related norms they were taught in their youth, despite education and sensitization sessions. For example, mothers may continue to encourage use of traditional menstruation materials despite training on and access to menstrual cups. Girls and young women with single fathers in particular struggle accessing menstruation products. 
  • Students prefer more frequent MHH education sessions.
  • Many communities have seen poor uptake of sustainable MHH products.
  • Maintenance and cleanliness issues often result in closed or unreliable school latrines.
  • Active male participation in MHH is crucial. Unless boys and men are engaged more fully in MHH initiatives, problematic behaviors such as male teasing will continue and long-held stigmas surrounding menstruation cannot be meaningfully broken down. 
  • Inclusivity in designing and implementing MHH interventions increases the potential for lasting changes in MHH behaviors and attitudes. 

Putting these findings into practice

USAID’s strategic elevation of MHH as a key WASH priority is simple: Not only does improved access to and investment in MHH result in better health outcomes, but such efforts also fuel progress toward greater gender equality and empowerment. As the young researchers from Malawi’s Days for Girls organization write: “It is a matter of human rights for every girl and woman, everywhere, to have a dignified menstruation experience and have access to accurate, age-appropriate MHH information and materials to use during menstruation. Every girl, everywhere, period!” 

Maximizing and sustaining the impact of USAID MHH programming — through long-term behavior change and reshaping attitudes toward menstruation in schools and at the community level — is a complicated undertaking that will take time. But, with youth at the helm of research initiatives relevant to resolving MHH issues facing their communities, there is no better way to foster long-term community buy-in, ensure uptake of best practices, and make sure all members of the community — especially boys and men — are active participants in solving MHH-related public health challenges. 

Interested in learning more? 

About The Author

Russell Sticklor is a communications specialist, environmental journalist, and podcast producer focused on water security, climate change, and sustainable development. He has worked previously with the International Water Management Institute, USAID, and Project Drawdown, among others.

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