Menstrual Hygiene Day: Experts proffer solutions to period poverty in Nigeria
As the world marks Menstrual Hygiene Day today with the theme, ‘Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030, IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA highlights the impediments to proper menstrual hygiene among girls and women in the country and how to make menstrual hygiene management a norm going forward.
Fifteen-year-old Esther only has access to sanitary pads whenever donations are made in her school or neighbourhood in Ogun State.
“I cannot afford sanitary pads, my aunty who I live with, taught me to cut my old clothes in pieces; I lay them till they are thick enough to carry me on for the day. In most cases, I am soiled. This makes me so uncomfortable and sad,” she said.
For Ann, a 19-year-old undergraduate, “my mom was really broke at the time I had my period. I wasn’t living with my dad too, so I just cut some pieces out of clothes I wasn’t wearing and bleed on them.”
Hamidiat, another 19-year-old student said: “My only way of getting money is through my parents; we are not allowed to do any business. My mum took charge of buying body essentials including sanitary towels. Whenever she doesn’t have money, she will tell us to use stack clothes while at home so the available sanitary towels will serve us when going out.”
These are among millions of Nigerian schoolgirls, especially in rural, hard to reach, conflict-affected and underserved communities who battle with menstrual hygiene management due to lack of and non-affordability of sanitary pads. Women and girls in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps are not exempted. They are prevented from going to school due to fear of leakage, as they use clothes instead of pads, which poses poor hygiene.
“I’d rather let my girl stay at home than spend N600 to buy a pad for a month,” said Rukayat, a mum to a teenager.
This year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day is marked with the theme, ‘Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030’, which is targeted at vulnerable and indigent women and girls with the goal to make menstrual hygiene management a norm.
Menstrual Hygiene Challenges
SPEAKING on the theme, gender justice advocate and founder, of Gender Mobile Initiative, Omowumi Ogunrotimi, said that girls in environments of learning and across communities were faced with the difficulty of accessing water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. These, she explained, entail the unavailability of clean, well-lit and safe toilets; unavailability of clean water and soap and unavailability of incinerators/secure waste disposal.
“The socio-economic status of a girl’s family and the high cost of sanitary products also poses a challenge to accessing sanitary products and essential sanitary material in ensuring proper hygiene and good health. Inadequate information is a bane of menstrual hygiene – the inadequacy of inclusive and comprehensive education for boys and girls on menstruation as a normal biological development phenomenon has dire implications for stigma, shaming and secrecy placed on menstruation. Girls are constricted by this social conditioning and refrained from speaking or getting the necessary support on information, products or services,” she added.
For Social entrepreneur and author of Flow: A Girls Guide to Menstruation, Raquel Daniel, “lack of proper menstrual hygiene information in the curriculum for girls starting from upper primary classes is a major challenge. I believe that to tackle the issues around menstruation and hygiene, girls need to be taught early about menstruation and how it affects their entire life.”
On his part, the Chief Period Officer of Sanicle, Chaste Inegbedion, popularly known as Padman, said access to organic menstrual hygiene products was a major challenge facing women and girls in developing countries.
He stated that in a survey conducted by Sanicle, the most common types of menstrual hygiene products participants used were disposable menstrual pads, followed by cloth menstrual pads and tampons. According to him, only 1.6 per cent of the participants used a menstrual cup and others were not aware of other innovative products like Period Panties.
Inegbedion explained that researchers continuously work to make periods easier, and new technologies helping the menstruation experience arose like Tampon Applicator, Nanno Pad, Livia Device and menstrual disc.
“When it comes to health, there tends to be a specific focus on what we put in and, on our body, from the food and drinks we consume to what we put on our skin. Most organic menstrual products claim to be free from harmful chemicals, pesticides and allergens. Many are also eco-friendly, not only benefitting you but also the planet.”
Inegbedion added that to increase availability, various national and international initiatives have distributed free or subsidised menstrual hygiene products. However, while this approach could be used in the short term to quickly improve access to menstrual hygiene products in a community, it was far more sustainable to work to ensure an affordable and consistent supply of the reusable menstrual hygiene product(s) of choice is available.”
For the founder of A Pad for Her Initiative, Deborah Oludimu, “we are committed to eradicating period poverty by speaking about periods and breaking the stigma and then consistently raising funds to provide period products to those in need. For the past six months, we have tried to bridge the gap between young girls and proper menstrual hygiene education.”
Management Of Menstrual Hygiene
DANIEL stressed that there were a lot of girls who go through puberty with little or no information about menstruation.
“This has led a lot of them to get involved in sexual activities early, and without proper education about their cycles; they end up dropping out of school. When girls know more about their bodies, what to expect and how to respond, they will manage whatever it is they find and try to keep them clean and to stay safe. To me, the worst part is not knowing; this led me to write the book, FLOW. If they know, they will do better.”
Inegbedion, on his part, noted that menstrual hygiene education was totally absent or just a routine mother-child, girl-girl hush-hush conversation in villages and communities. He noted that it has become imperative to reverse this trend and create an environment where the practice of menstrual hygiene is a conscious and enlightened self-interest. “This will help improve school attendance for girls in their period. Further to this is the need to change orientations and educate men and boys about the fact that menstruation is a purely biological process specific to the female anatomy,” he added.
Similarly, Ogunrotimi said girls do not have adequate information prior to menarche, the first menstrual period of every girl. “This information gap can be attributed to a plethora of factors such as cultural myths, intolerance to sexuality education, poverty, lack of youth-friendly platforms and services, ignorance and poverty, among others,” she observed.
Olujimi, who agrees with Ogunrotimi’s submission, added: “Our organisation collects stories of these young girls and women and we realise that prior to the beginning of their periods, these girls are only superficially informed and even after the start of their periods, for years, they do not have enough information about what should constitute a menstrual cycle.
“For instance, a team member has a 38-40 day menstrual cycle and when asked why she had never checked it out, she simply replied and said her mum said it will even out when she gets older. She’s 19 and she started when she was 12.
“We lack period resources among the 80 million people living below the poverty line in Nigeria; girls in public schools and slums. However, the lack of information is a widespread issue that covers the whole country. There is not enough information on how to manage periods properly and even how to dispose of these items such that some people resort to burning them and as a result, we are increasing our eco-footprint.”
Cultural Myths And Beliefs
DESPITe the challenges women face with menstruation, the greatest of these are the myths and beliefs in rural communities across the country. According to Inegbedion, many communities are steeped in cultural prejudices that have been transmitted across several generations. Despite the spread of western education, such myths and taboos still persist even were members of such communities have migrated to settle outside their native homes.
“For instance, in some communities in Bauchi State, northern Nigeria, menstruating girls and women are not supposed to cook for their menfolk due to the belief that such food would ruin the potency of the men’s charms (juju). In another instance, Ado community in Benue State believes that menstruating girls should not bathe in a river that flows through the community because they are ‘unclean’.
“In Plateau State, the myth and superstition are more absurd. A menstruating woman is not allowed to visit the chief/traditional ruler; she cannot cook for the elders; she cannot greet her husband in the morning without first having her bath; she is restricted from going to certain places because she is ‘unclean’,” Inegbedion said.
He noted that women in these communities remain victims of social discrimination and stigma, adding that this increases the number of women mismanaging their menstruation and menstrual hygiene.
“It, therefore, requires consistent and far-reaching campaigns to challenge such cultural assumptions that classify menstruating women and girls as evil, sources of bad luck to men or infertility to animals, and similar absurdities,” he noted.
Activities To Fight Menstrual Poverty
THROUGH its Project Red Robots, Daniel has educated over 40,000 girls on menstrual hygiene practices and menstruation with free sanitary towels worth three to six months supply.
“Our target is girls who are in and out of school to ensure those in school remain, graduate and those who are out of school due to lack of access have the opportunity to get back to school. To ensure girls have adequate information on menstruation, my book FLOW has been distributed to girls who cannot afford it across low-income schools and the IDP camps.”
For Ogunrotimi, “we have designed culturally appropriate menstrual health information, training and provided sanitary pads to girls in underserved communities. Our organisation has leveraged partnerships with Ministries and Agencies of Government, Civil Society Organisations and individuals to make sanitary products accessible to girls in secondary schools across low-resource communities in Ekiti State.
“Gender Mobile through our platforms has been engaging in sensitisation series on menstruation that seeks to deconstruct harmful myths, share personal angle stories on menstrual experiences and provide information on menstrual hygiene practices.”
Through, A Pad for Her, Oludimu is committed to eradicating period poverty by speaking about periods and breaking the stigma, and then consistently raising funds to provide period products to those in need.
“For the past six months, we have tried to bridge the gap between young girls and proper menstrual hygiene education. In celebrating this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day, we have provided period products to 2,400 schoolgirls and women in four schools across Lagos, Osun and Oyo State and held a webinar on ‘Making Menstruation a Normal Part of Life by 2030’.
“We would also be carrying out a medical sensitisation in Bodija, a very popular market in Ibadan and provide women with free medical consultation with licensed medical personnel and educate them better so they can pass the same to their kids.”
For Inegbedion, “I have collaborated with organisations including Community Advocates in Harlem, Rotaract Club of the UN, Days of Girl International, Freedom Foundation, working side by side with the Man Up Campaign, Wikimedia Foundation, Afro crowd, Climate Reality and the United Nations to set the ball rolling for a man championing a Menstrual Movement. This proves our capabilities to work alongside others and to #EndThe9jaTaxOnPads.”
Role of Government
Daniel, who is also the founder, of Beyond The Classroom Foundation, noted that the government could focus on three areas; one will be to include menstrual hygiene information in the curriculum for girls starting from upper primary classes.
“They should also focus on ensuring we have proper facilities in schools that allow girls to change their sanitary pads with dignity. The last will be to partner with organisations and manufacturers of sanitary pads to make sanitary banks available in government schools. This will help more girls not miss many days of school.”
According Oludimu, periods are seen as a girl’s and a women’s issue. “There is a culture of silence around menstruation and this culture of silence veils the problems that come with periods such as the inability to purchase period products, lack of water and adequate care.
“We believe if the government understands that since 83 million girls and women suffer from period poverty, we can no longer term this a girl’s and a women’s issue. It is a public health issue. The government has to be deliberate about providing proper menstrual products to these young girls who because of financial constraints, have had to consider a basic need such as pads as a luxury item.”
The Padman further stressed that there are little or no amenities available for socially and economically disadvantaged lower-class women and girls to enable them to stay clean and comfortable all through their menstrual cycles. “Clean and affordable water supply is to a large extent, a luxury. There are also no free and available public toilets in public spaces like parks, schools, markets and other places frequented by the socially and economically disadvantaged. Where they exist, they are usually in such bad shape that they are not an option for those in need of privacy. This is the case even in publicly owned hospitals.”
For Ogunrotimi, as the machinery of the state through which the will of the people is formulated, expressed and attained, the government has the sole responsibility of enacting policies and legal framework that guarantees availability and promotes universal access to facilities and menstrual products. Given the class distinction obtainable in society, the government has the onerous duty to democratise access to information and services through youth-friendly platforms and pocket-friendly rates.
“The economic reality of the critical mass of young girls in Nigeria constitutes a major barrier and limits their purchasing capabilities to afford products such as sanitary pads, smartphones to make information access seamless, data to access accurate information on digital platforms or at the very least lend their voice to campaigns that bring the issues to fore.
“Government has the duty to enforce a tax regulatory framework, particularly on companies producing the products essentially to cushion the financial burden on girls from low-resource communities. The government needs to reaffirm its commitment to building a gender-transformative society where girls do not have to pay a price for their biological and anatomical makeup.”