Thursday, 21st September 2023

Stakeholders chart path to making menstruation normal part of life

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
04 June 2023   |   3:05 am
This year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day may have come and gone, but the commemoration brought to the fore concerns over affordability of menstrual products, basic education, cultural barriers and stigma associated with menstruation.

Menstrual Hygiene

This year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day may have come and gone, but the commemoration brought to the fore concerns over affordability of menstrual products, basic education, cultural barriers and stigma associated with menstruation.

With the theme, ‘Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030,’ stakeholders and experts, on May 28, stressed the need to ensure that more girls and women, especially in underserved communities, have access to basic education and products to live normal and healthy lives.

Founder, Bridge-D-Gap Initiative, Opeyemi Makanjuola, noted that “menstruation is experienced by almost every woman in every part of the world, yet, it is regarded with so much silence, discrimination and even stigma by diverse cultures and even religions, globally.

Makanuola said: “A survey I recently conducted, revealed that only six out of 40 girls were informed about menstruation outside their biology classes and before their first period. Most girls in this study noted that they were scared and in shock at their very first bleed because they were never informed on what to expect and how to manage their bodies throughout their cycles. Most did not even know how long their flow would last.

“One of the girls revealed that she was severely bullied in school after her first period because she frequently got stained and always had a foul smell. Her classmates even called her ‘red-piggy’, and she was too embarrassed to even share this with her mum.”

Makanjuola noted that the hushness in discussing menstruation has led to damaging misconceptions and staggering rates of poor hygiene practices by girls between the ages of 12-19. “In my study, it was discovered that a number of girls who had suffered severe menstrual cramps, were advised to engage in penetrative sex to prevent period cramps and heavy bleeding. Unfortunately, these girls became sexually active and some contracted sexually transmitted diseases in the process, and none of them recorded any relief from period cramps.

“Sadly too, parents are not talking about periods. So, most girls get information from friends and rumors. I believe that there is still so much to be done to improve menstrual hygiene education as there is still so much silence on this issue.”

According to the Founder, Beyond the Classroom Foundation, Raquel Kasham Daniel, unequal access to education and information about menstrual hygiene is of concern.

He revealed that in marginalised communities, where resources and infrastructure are limited, girls often face barriers in accessing proper education and awareness about menstruation. This knowledge gap, Daniel noted, can lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, and even exclusion, affecting girls’ confidence, well-being, and overall educational opportunities. “We must address these disparities and ensure that all girls have access to accurate information and support to manage their menstrual health,” she noted.

Founder, A Pad for Her, Oludimu Deborah, observed that historically, menstruation has been seen as a private affair and a taboo topic, hence the rare discussions about periods. “This has prevented the debilitating effects of period poverty on women’s health, education, and economic participation from being properly documented or amplified. However, there has been a noticeable shift in the last few years.

“A significant change has occurred in societal mindset, with more people now freely discussing menstruation, sharing their thoughts on social media platforms, and openly addressing the challenges that come with menstruation. This level of open dialogue was not as prevalent in the past few years. It’s crucial to go beyond discussing the issue and focus on implementing concrete solutions, especially for women in disadvantaged communities,” Deborah noted.

Programme Manager, Give Girls A Chance Nigeria, Chinwe Okafor, on her part, noted that lack of access to menstrual hygiene resources for girls from poor-resourced homes and communities in Nigeria is a source of concern. “Many girls in these areas cannot afford menstrual hygiene products or may not have access to clean water and sanitation facilities. In addition, the stigma surrounding menstruation is still prevalent in many communities, which is a contributing factor to school absenteeism or being excluded from social activities.”

Founder, Virtuous Reusable pads, Tabitha Arenson Abimiku, remarked that the strides to making menstrual hygiene a normal fact of life by 2030 is commendable, but noted that it is crucial to address concerns related to awareness, infrastructure, affordability, gender inequality, social norms, and policy support. “Multifaceted approaches involving education, infrastructure development, affordability measures, policy reforms, and cultural shifts are essential to overcome these challenges and ensure progress towards menstrual hygiene normalisation,” she said.

For Chief Product Officer,, Chaste Inegbedion, the persistence of stigma surrounding menstruation, which hinders open discussions and perpetuates misinformation is a major concern. “However, I believe that Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a vital role in addressing these concerns. AI-powered platforms and tools can help improve access and affordability of menstrual products by streamlining supply chains and connecting users with discounted or free resources.

“AI can also contribute to comprehensive education by providing personalised and accurate information about menstrual health through chatbots, online platforms, and educational apps. It can also assist in collecting and analysing data related to menstrual health, helping policymakers make informed decisions and develop effective strategies to promote menstrual hygiene.”

Okafor said that Give Girls A Chance has conducted surveys annually during its Menstrual Hygiene campaigns, and data collected shows that many girls from poor-resource homes can’t afford sanitary pads and resort to unsafe menstrual practices which can have serious health consequences. “We believe that all girls, regardless of their socio-economic status, should have access to the resources they need to manage their menstrual hygiene effectively.”

For Makanjuola, “sanitary pads are expensive, and an average period cycle of (five to seven days) will require at least 20 sanitary towels to practice safe hygiene. Girls from low income families can barely afford underwear, not to speak of sanitary towels, in fact pads are considered luxury by many. They also don’t have the luxury of privacy during their periods, as they live in shared or crowded spaces.

She noted that girls, especially in the northern parts of Nigeria, are still victims of child marriage and are considered ripe for marriage upon their first bleed, hence many of these girls keep their periods a secret. “Girls in internally displaced camps and terrorism zones, are at an even higher disadvantage as they do not have access to even basic sanitary needs, some do not even have access to water, unfortunately, they cannot choose to stop menstruating, they have to endure and make do with whatever is available.”

Daniel noted that she has witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by girls, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. “The cost of purchasing sanitary pads is simply unaffordable. As a result, they resort to using ineffective and unhygienic alternatives like tissue paper, newspapers, or even pieces of old clothing. This not only puts their physical health at risk but also affects their self-esteem and confidence.

“Also, the absence of proper sanitation facilities heighten the difficulties faced by these girls. Many schools or public spaces lack clean and private toilets with running water and disposal facilities. This means that during their periods, girls have to navigate unsanitary conditions, making them feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and even prone to infections. This not only affects their ability to attend school regularly but also contributes to absenteeism and dropout rates.”

For Oludimu, she stressed that in many of its outreaches, they have had students who wouldn’t come out to discuss their challenges at the selected booths for fear of shame from their peers, only to meet a volunteer by a corner. ,“Similarly, we have heard multiple stories of these girls skipping school altogether, or being unable to pay attention in class, because of their flow and fear of being stained. Not to mention ridicule by their peers, who just do not know better. But I am convinced that through initiatives similar to ours, as well as public support, we can make menstruation a normal part of life by 2030.”

Inegbedion added that the prevalence of menstrual stigma and taboos, which can lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, and secrecy among girls, is that the stigma often prevents open discussions about menstruation, leaving girls uninformed and unprepared for managing their periods in a healthy and dignified manner.”

Abimiku noted that cultural taboos and lack of awareness remain major concerns as menstruation continues to be stigmatised in many societies, leading to limited discussions and education on the topic. This lack of awareness perpetuates myths and misinformation, hindering progress.

“Insufficient infrastructure and facilities pose another barrier. Access to clean and private toilets, adequate sanitation facilities, and proper waste disposal methods are essential for managing menstrual hygiene effectively,” she added.

Activities on Menstrual Hygiene
For Daniel who is an educator and social entrepreneur working in marginalised communities in Nigeria, she is focused on educating children on sexual and reproductive health through Beyond the Classroom Foundation. “In the last five years, the Foundation has impacted over 50,000 girls, providing free menstrual hygiene education and sanitary pads. Recognising a gap in menstruation education, I wrote a book titled, ‘FLOW: A Girl’s Guide to Menstruation.’ This informative guide provides valuable insights and knowledge to girls, empowering them to navigate their menstrual cycles with confidence and understanding.”

Abimiku noted that through its three pillars intervention which is menstrual materials and supplies, supportive WASH facilities, and menstrual health and hygiene education, it is helping to normalise menstrual hygiene.

“At Virtuous Reusable pads we have designed, created and deployed one of Africa’s pioneer reusable pads called Virtuous pads and a leading advocate for menstrual health and hygiene.”

Oludimu said that through storytelling, they are have been breaking the silence surrounding menstruation through a comprehensive approach spanning various educational initiatives, community engagement, and advocacy efforts. “One of the organisation’s primary avenues for education is newsletters, social media posts, and blogs dedicated to menstrual health. By consistently sharing accurate information, debunking myths, and fostering open discussions, we have raised awareness to normalise conversations around menstruation and bridge the gap between women and menstrual health.

“By visiting schools and markets in underserved areas, we have conducted interactive sessions to educate young girls and women about menstrual health and hygiene. In recognition of the importance of long-term sustainability, A Pad for Her has established pad banks in schools across Nigeria serving 3,000 girls across 10 schools. These pad banks serve as centralised hubs where girls can access menstrual products discreetly and free of charge, running for seven months now.”

To further amplify its impact, A Pad for Her has initiated the formation of menstrual dignity advocacy clubs in schools to discuss menstruation openly, share experiences, and support one another.

While Okafor noted that her organisation, Give Girls A Chance has been working to promote menstrual hygiene education and access to sanitary kits for girls in Nigeria by organising seminars and training sessions for girls, parents, and teachers on menstrual hygiene management. “For the past year we have consistently distributed menstrual hygiene kits monthly to beneficiaries across four partner schools in Abuja in poor-resourced communities. These kits consist of sanitary pads, soap, and detergents.

We have also been active in fundraising for menstrual hygiene education and resources launching various campaigns like #NoGirlLeftBehind and #GiveGirlsPads. This year to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day our goal is to reach a total of 700 girls and women; we will be distributing period kits to school-age girls as well as women in a poor-resourced community of Abuja.”

Makanjuola said, “I run sexual reproductive health classes in secondary schools across Lagos state, these classes cover menstrual care and hygiene, and also educates on sexual abuse prevention and management. I will also be launching a ‘Sex Education for Parents Course’ next month. I have created a Sanitary Kit called,’ You’ve Got This!’, which includes, a period journal and calculator that I developed, along with a menstrual care guide, it provides a lot of information about menstruation and how to care for the body.”

While Inegbedion said that providing accurate and comprehensive information on topics related to menstrual health, including hygiene practices, menstrual product options, reproductive health, and breaking stigmas and taboos surrounding menstruation is his organisation’s core. “Additionally, through our Black Menstrual Hygiene Day event, we launched a ‘Men Buy Pads’ campaign, which seeks to redefine traditional gender roles and encourage men to actively support menstrual hygiene by purchasing pads for the women in their lives.”

Role of Government
For Mr Padman, the role of government in achieving the goal of making menstrual hygiene a normal fact of life involves policymaking, funding allocation, education integration, infrastructure improvement, research support, and advocacy for gender equality. Their active involvement and commitment are vital to creating positive change in menstrual health. “Governments can advocate for gender equality and challenge societal norms and taboos surrounding menstruation. By fostering a culture of inclusivity, respect, and understanding, governments can help create an environment where menstrual hygiene is normalised, and individuals are free from discrimination and stigma.

Makanjuola said the government should provide subsidies or free sanitary towels, for girls from lower income families, or public schools. For example, Scotland has led this action by providing access to free menstrual products, while Kenya and New Zealand distribute free menstrual products to girls in public schools.

“There should also be policies in place, for girls from JSS 1, to take a classes on menstruation, this class should help girls to know about their cycles, options available to manage their period flow, how often they should change or shower and how to manage period cramps and other symptoms.”
“Governments can play a vital role by enacting comprehensive policies and legislation that address menstrual health and hygiene,” says Oludimu. “ Contrary to public opinion, it would not be a stand-alone project as it’ll encompass various areas such as education, healthcare, sanitation, and gender equality. The government can integrate menstrual health education into school curricula for both boys and girls to foster a more informed and understanding society.”

She stressed that governments can support research efforts to better understand the impact of menstruation on various aspects of life, including health, education, and economic participation.

On her part, Daniel said the government should collaborate with local and international organisations, NGOs, and civil society groups working in the field of menstrual hygiene. “By leveraging the expertise and resources of various stakeholders, the government can develop comprehensive and sustainable strategies that address the multifaceted challenges related to menstrual health.The Nigerian government needs to recognize menstrual hygiene as a priority and allocate adequate funding and resources toward its promotion.

While Okafor added that the government can also work to improve access to clean water and sanitation facilities, which are essential for maintaining good menstrual hygiene.

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