Each year, one of the most well attended events at the UN is the two-week long Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Reproductive rights, access to quality healthcare as well as menstrual hygiene products featured prominently in the discussions.
This year, for the CSW’s sixtieth session, a growing global commitment was evident with a record number of more than 80 government ministers from around the world attending the Commission. Around 4,100 non-governmental representatives from more than 540 organizations participated as well, the highest number ever for one of the Commission’s regular annual meetings.
Alongside this central discussion, hundreds of side events were organized by UN Missions and other stakeholders. Like the main discussion, side events focused on themes such as the economic empowerment of women and the prevention of violence. However, a good number of side events centered their discussion on the importance of access to healthcare, menstrual hygiene and sanitation products, and fertility awareness as a tool for monitoring women’s health.
The lack of access to feminine hygiene products is one of the primary reasons that young women drop out of school in developing countries. Because of this, the unavailability of commonplace products in the developed world, such as pads and tampons, is much more than a simple inconvenience, and can hold back the development of entire communities when young girls fall behind in education. In turn, many participating counties and NGOs tied this to the occurrence of gender-based violence. In communities where female children lack the education of their male counterparts, their ability to advocate for themselves and the needs of their children is often diminished, and a correlating lack of respect for women can result in increased domestic abuse.
Maternal healthcare was another dominating topic of CSW side events. The World Health Organization estimates that 830 women die in childbirth every day from preventable causes. The newly adopted Sustainable Development Agenda’s third goal is to reduce maternal mortality, making this issue a priority within the UN and global community.
Additionally, water management and sanitation practices that are implemented in developing countries, need to take into account the differing needs of women during menstruation. One side event, co-hosted by Germany and Singapore discussed this basic need and how new adaptations of WASH (a protocol taught in developing countries to manage water, sanitation and hygiene) can make it more gender-responsive.
Of particular interest to me, this year one side event presented the work of FEMM (fertility education and medical management), a comprehensive women’s health program that helps women learn how to track their monthly cycles so that they can monitor their health and fertility. FEMM also trains doctors to work with their female patients and use this information to improve health outcomes. FEMM has been on my radar for a little while now, and I was happy to see them present their story and methods to a UN audience.
In communities around the world in which women have the necessary agency to determine when they do or do not have intercourse with their spouse, FEMM’s fertility awareness method also provides a cost-effective means of birth control.
Fertility awareness methods (FAM) use biological indicators to identify the fertile window of each menstrual cycle. When used correctly, fertility awareness-based methods like the sympto-thermal method that I teach can be upwards of 95% effective in preventing pregnancy. If a couple chooses to abstain from sex entirely during the fertile window, fertility awareness methods qualify as Natural Family Planning.
Alternatively, a couple may choose to use one (or two!) backup methods of birth control during the fertile window. Extra care is important at this time since the fertile window is exactly when a birth control method slip or dysfunction has a large chance of resulting in a pregnancy.
Unfortunately, FAM is often equated with ineffective models like the Rhythm Method. The primary difference is that effective fertility awareness methods focus on the biological indicators of each cycle, and ineffective methods project a fertile/infertile pattern onto each cycle. Because the date of ovulation can change from cycle to cycle it is extremely important to observe the fertility indicators of each individual cycle, and not rely on the patterns created by previous cycles alone.
FEMM, the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)’s WASH update for women, and the UN Member States that came together to host the events discussed here, were only a few of the CSW participants focused on women’s menstrual health.
The menstrual cycle and women’s reproductive health is an important cornerstone of overall health and well-being, and as such, it is only right that a large portion of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women’s discussion is dedicated to our periods!