In Africa, Menstruation Can Be a Curse

The natural process of menstruation comes as a big problem to women and girls in many parts of Africa, contributing to both disempowerment and health risks. For young girls, menstruation is an addition to the heap of gender disparities they have to face in life.

In order to stem the flow of monthly periods, the women and girls use anything from rags, tree leaves, old clothes, toilet paper, newspapers, cotton wool, cloths or literally anything that can do the job. Most girls from poor, rural communities do not use anything at all.

Menstruation is perhaps one of the most regular individual female experiences, but in sub-Saharan Africa, the experience impacts general society negatively due to the absence of products required by women and girls to cope with menstrual flow.

To state it bluntly, menstruation has become like a curse not only to the women and girls but to society in general on the continent. Because menstruation is largely a private act, the social damage is hidden and never makes the news headlines. Also, there are cultural and social attitudes that render discussion of menstruation almost impossible.

Affordable and hygienic sanitary protection is not available to many women and girls in Africa, and governments have done very little to address this reproductive health issue which has serious public health consequences.

In sub-Saharan Africa, millions of girls, in particular, that reach the age of puberty are highly disempowered due to the lack of access to sanitary wear. Many of the girls from poor families cannot afford to buy sanitary pads.

Hence they resort to the use of unhygienic rags and cloths which puts them at the risk of infections. Some of the girls engage in transactional sex so that they can raise the money required to buy sanitary pads, putting themselves at the risk of HIV and STI infection.

Alternatively, young girls are forced to skip school during the time they experience monthly periods to avoid both the cost of pads or use of cloths.

"Less-privileged girls and women who represent substantial percentage in our contemporary Africa will continue to suffer resulting to school absenteeism and also compromising their right to health care," says Fredrick W. Njuguna, Program Director of Familia Human Care Trust in Kenya.

A girl absent from school due to menstruation for four days in 28 days (a month) loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning, in every school term.

It is estimated that within the four years of high school the same girl loses 156 learning days equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in high school.

Consequently, a girl child potentially becomes a "school drop out" while she is still attending school. In addition, the girl child has to deal with emotional and psychological tension associated with the menstrual process.

To make matters worse, according to Familia Human Care Trust, many schools in underprivileged areas lack sufficient sanitation facilities which are vital not only during a girl's period but at all times generally such as water, adequate toilet facilities and appropriate dumping facilities for sanitary wear.

As a result, menstruating girls opt to stay at home due to lack of facilities to help them manage their periods than go to school.

For orphaned girls, the prospect of coping with bodily changes can be a significant challenge because they have no one to turn to for information or advice. In addition, due to the use of improper methods to contain their menstrual flow, young girls may develop bodily odors that will lead to social exclusion within peer groups thereby impacting negatively on the young girl's confidence.

The need for affordable sanitary wear for women and girls in Africa is indeed a major public health issue that governments need to prioritize in their planning.

On the other hand, there is need for social innovation around this issue because the need for sanitary wear among girls and women will forever be there, at least in the long term future.

The bottom line is that no girl child must be disadvantaged by the natural process of menstruation, and governments, civil society organizations and other players need to work together to ensure that the appropriate services are made available.

As it is, menstruation has becomes the undeclared basis for the social exclusion of young girls. Sanitary protection is an urgent need among women and girls and needs to be made affordable so that poor and marginalized groups can have access.

Global alliances between women in the rich and poor worlds can be a key solution to the problem of access to sanitary wear. But governments also need to recognize that ensuring women and girl's access to sanitary wear has positive public health implications.

Access to affordable sanitary care is human right but one that is never discussed in our male dominated world. Whatever the case, the fact remains: every woman should be able to have access to the right products which can enable them to happily experience menstruation.

No woman should be cursed do disempowerment by the natural act of monthly periods.

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  • invalid-0

    I had a professor in undergrad who did her sabbatical in Zimbabwe and she pleaded for us to set up a tampon/pad donation box in the women’s studies lounge. That helped because there’s someone we trusted to get the supplies there. Is there anything we can do here in order to help girls get the necessities they need?

  • invalid-0

    I just found a page that lists NGOs working to provision women in need with menstrual supplies….so now we can turn what we read in this article into action!

  • invalid-0

    instead of or in addition to tampons etc i would suggest which sells all sorts of natural cotton washable pads as well as other options. i think there are also instructional things on how to make your own. of course, they would have to be able to wash them..

  • invalid-0

    I checked out the site and they donate to Goods 4 Girls – a great effort:

    Also, stay tuned, in the next week or so we’ll address Proctor & Gamble’s (owners of Always and Tampax brands) campaign to send disposable sanitary pads to young women in Africa. There are some who don’t believe this kind of corporate do-gooding is a smart decision (for economic as well as environmental reasons) while others believe the bad outweighs the good:

    Ultimately, I am grateful for Masimba’s attention to this issue and if there are concrete ways to help young women now, I hope we take advantage of those opportunities in the ways in which each of us feels comfortable!

  • invalid-0

    I’ve seen some writing on this topic recently, and I find it very interesting. I think it’s really important to consider the many complicating factors that play in to girls’ education in sub-Saharan Africa.

    However, I also have to consider the corporate interest inherent in garnering a new market for “feminine hygiene products,” not to mention the environmental impact of pads and tampons.

    Another commenter suggested GladRags. That is one good option, as are the Keeper and the Diva Cup, which last for 10 years. Also, one can make homemade cloth menstrual pads. A simple google search will bring you LOTS of patterns, in different styles, shapes, etc. There are many different ways to make these. It seems to me that promoting a sustainable, healthy, low-cost solution is the best approach – women-friendly, girl-friendly, and planet-friendly.

    For additional reading, there is a great short piece by Bee Lavender in the current issue of Bitch Magazine, in the “Love it/Shove It” section. Unfortunately, this isn’t available online, but it’s in the print edition and worth a read. Lavender provides an important and well-argued critique of the Proctor & Gamble campaign to make pads and tampons available to young women in the developing world.

    And, incidentally, I’d love to see greater use of reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups in the U.S. too. Let’s keep that stuff out of our landfills, and not shell out $ for expensive, unnecessary disposable products!

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for writing such a well written post. I’ll be adding it to the Goods 4 Girls website as a link for people who want to read more about the issue.

    Goods 4 Girls was created in reaction to the Procter & Gamble/Tampax campaign for those interested in supplying more environmentally and sustainable supplies for girls in need. For many areas, disposables create an additional environmental burden due to lack of solid waste disposal.

    We just sent out 70 donated kits (5 pads and 1 carry case each) to go to girls in the primary school in Lwala, Kenya yesterday. We are also working with groups in Kabondo, Kenya; Uganda and Nigeria. The major cloth pad manufacturers, GladRags and LunaPads are both offering Goods 4 Girls kits for individuals to purchase and be sent to Goods 4 Girls for distribution. Of course, there are many people making them at home and donating them as well.

    In the future, Goods 4 Girls will be working within interested communities to teach the women to sew pads from donated materials. We will also be exploring the possibility of acceptance in using something like the DivaCup or Keeper.

    This is an issue that many people are unaware of, so thank you for giving it the attention it deserves.

    Deanna Duke
    Founder, Goods 4 Girls

  • invalid-0

    My name is Mercy from Kenya in East Africa. I am 21 years old. What you have said about mensturation being a curse is very true. I am speaking from personal experience.

    I went to school in the villages and it was hard. During mensturation, I wouild stay at home. I could not go to school during mensuration because of the embarrassment of messing my school uniforms.

    I remember one embarassing event when the flow got heavy, it was actually seeping into my shoes. The boys in my school thought it was funny…I should have died then. Things were never the same for me in school. I was so ashamed. I stopped participating in class. I just went numb there after. I didn’t want to play anymore because I was so ignorant on mensturation, I did not understand what they were.

    The most affected people are the girl child in rural areas and underdeveloped places. It is about time the campaigns wnt deeper into the villages. The girls in the villages need these information. If you stay in the villge and you are reading this, then you should act…GO TELL IT TO THE VILLAGERS. TELL THEM MORE ABOUT MENSTURATION.