In Kyrgyzstan, it is considered shameful to talk about menstruation, and girls are stigmatized and punished for their periods. Additionally, period poverty in Kyrgyzstan is a struggle, where many lack the necessary supplies for their menstrual cycles. This only furthers the stigma around periods and has dangerous consequences for the girls involved. However, leaders in Kyrgyzstan and foundations like UNICEF have been working together to support Kyrgyz girls and women, and there have been many successes within the past decade.
Menstrual Hygiene Management in Kyrgyzstan
Global leaders recognize menstrual hygiene management, or MHM, as an important public health and development issue. The end goal of programs committed to supporting MHM is to transform schools for menstruating girls who face societal challenges. These include not being allowed to go to school while menstruating as well as municipal challenges that more closely resemble the common idea of period poverty. Problems extend to not having access to period supplies, or possibly not having clean water or facilities in schools where girls can clean themselves during their periods.
Period poverty in Kyrgyzstan most often takes the form of unreliable access to sanitary necessities, such as clean water. Up to 67% of Kyrgyz in country villages cannot consistently access clean water, according to the United Nations (U.N.), UNICEF reports that public discomfort surrounding menstruation is so high, that often the only advice menstruating girls receive is that they should keep themselves clean, but “they are generally unable to follow this advice due to the poor condition of school latrines.”
Period poverty in Kyrgyzstan is just another example of how it affects individuals and communities all around the world. It can look very different in various places and situations. Education surrounding menstruation is another tool that everyone can equip to fight period poverty, and it can change lives in both tangible and societal manners. The programs Kyrgyzstan is implementing happily lend support to that idea. Jane Dineen, a UNICEF Contributor at Forbes Magazine, writes that when schools talk about periods and other age-appropriate health and hygiene issues, “positive attitudes and behaviors” surrounding such topics are encouraged.
In 2017, UNICEF, Save the Children and the NGO Our Voice worked together to create educational programs focused on menstruation aiming to empower Kyrgyz educators and girls to teach their communities and combat the incorrect and harmful preconceived notions many people have about menstruation. In 2018, Save the Children also helped improve sanitary conditions in school restrooms to provide girls with a safer place to clean themselves. Menstrual hygiene management and UNICEF’s tools to disseminate it are essential in the fight against period poverty in Kyrgyzstan.
The first program, as well as the research and advocacy that went into its construction and implementation, stems from the Wins4Girls project, which the Government of Canada funds. It breaks down into two organizations as follows:
WaSH: Water, Sanitation, and Health
WaSH is an acronym people frequently use to describe the public health goal of providing children access to clean water, toilets and good hygiene practices.
WinS4Girls: WaSH in School for Girls
This Canadian program focuses on the menstrual practices of girls and aims to provide them with better education surrounding menstruation, as well as better facilities and tools they need to take care of themselves during their periods.
UNICEF WaSH Officer Esen Turusbekov came up with the idea of involving municipality-run youth centers to create opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, which Wins4Girls implemented in the second program. The training available to the girls is more than instructional and has helped girls to think of menstruation as a natural, biological act and not something dirty that they should be ashamed of.
New Success in Fighting Period Poverty in Kyrgyzstan
As of 2023, the UNICEF health app ‘Oky’ is available in Kyrgyzstan. ‘Oky’ is the first app designed for, with and by girls that allows them “to take control of their menstrual cycle,” as UNICEF put it in an early 2023 press release. Open Line Public Foundation collaborated with UNICEF to localize and adapt the ‘Oky’ platform for the specificities of Kyrgyzstan, such as internet speeds and the availability of different brands and models of devices.
‘Oky’ wants to reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the taboos and stigma surrounding menstruation. It also can help debunk myths and increase the amount of reliable information regarding the menstrual cycle. The ‘Oky’ app is an accessible and innovative creation that will undoubtedly go on to do much good for the young population of Kyrgyzstan, as it has helped people in 13 countries already.
Timeline of Progress
- 2014: Canada starts funding Wins4Girls, a program focused on bettering water, sanitation, and health/hygienic practices in schools, narrowing in on girls and menstruation.
- 2015: Wins4Girls conducts research in 14 countries, including Kyrgyzstan, on the menstrual hygiene practices of girls.
- 2017: The First Lady of Kyrgyzstan speaks at a Wins4Girls event; Wins4Girls Training for Teachers begins in Kyrgyzstan; UNICEF WaSH Officer Esen Turusbekov proposes involving youth centers to create peer-to-peer learning.
- 2019: UNICEF launches the ‘Oky’ app, a phone app focused on managing health, designed for, with and by girls, keeping their needs—especially menstruation—in mind.
- 2023: The ‘Oky’ app is available for the first time in Kyrgyzstan
Despite the prevailing taboo surrounding menstruation, recent victories have emerged in the battle against period poverty in Kyrgyzstan. Access to clean water remains a significant challenge for girls in the region, contributing to stigma and health concerns arising from inadequate hygiene. Nonetheless, Wins4Girls has taken proactive steps by introducing comprehensive educational MHM programs across Kyrgyzstan. These efforts extend to peer-to-peer initiatives aimed at raising awareness about menstrual hygiene and enhancing sanitation facilities in school restrooms, offering crucial support to menstruating girls. Adding to these advancements, the newly introduced ‘Oky’ period tracking and personal health app by UNICEF has made its debut in Kyrgyzstan, providing accessibility and countering misinformation perpetuated by the stigma attached to menstruation.
– Katherine Olsen