The Plight of the Poor African Girl and Woman on Menstruation
“As we agree to leave no one behind, we need to ensure that boys, men and families understand the issues of menstrual health management.” – Bathabile Dlamini, Minister for Women in the Presidency, South African Government
All around the world, over 300 million women are menstruating each day. Menstruation is perhaps among the most ordinary individual female experiences; however, in Africa, this experience often has a negative impact on the whole society.
This is due to the lack of clean water, sanitation as well as products that can help women and girls cope with menstrual flow. In Africa — and indeed in the world’s poorest and under-developing countries — menstruation and Menstrual Health Management (MHM) have, for long, been an issue for women.
They’re issues that have been treated private, and sometimes shameful, in African countries.
Menstruation, which is a natural process, comes as a big problem to women and girls in several African nations, and this contributes to both disempowerment and health risks. For young girls in this region, menstruation is an added layer to the heap of gender disparities, which they are subjected to daily at homes, in schools, in workplaces, and in any other setting on the continent you can think of.
In a bid to bring the flow of monthly periods under control, these women and girls utilize anything from tree leaves, rags, old clothes, newspapers, toilet paper, cotton wool, or literally any item that can do the job. The majority of girls from poor, rural communities in Africa don’t use anything at all.
While TAWF’s research shows that many women and girls’ world over fail to achieve Menstrual Hygiene management due to poverty, the Foundation’s conducted survey findings reveal that the menace is graver among African women and girls.
Improper MHM leads to a number of medical and social problems
Challenges the Poor African Girl and Woman Face during Menstruation
Without mincing words, menstruation has been regarded as a curse not only to the women and girls in Africa but to society as a whole. It is spoken of with a deprecating tone, especially in cultural and religious settings.
As it is mainly a private act, the social damage stays hidden, never making the news headlines. Apart from this, there are sociocultural attitudes on the continent, which makes a discussion of menstruation nearly impossible.
Several women and girls in Africa lack affordable and hygienic sanitary protection, and governments have not done much to nip this reproductive health issue in the bud, which poses serious public health consequences to these vulnerable Africans.
For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), there are millions of girls that attain the age of puberty and are severely disempowered as a result of the lack of access to sanitary wear. There are several girls from poor families who cannot afford to purchase sanitary pads.
For this reason, the poor girls resort to using unhygienic rags & cloths that put them at a high risk of contracting infections. Even some of these girls engage in transactional sex, where they hustle to raise the money needed to purchase sanitary pads.
Through this practice, they expose themselves to the risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Some young girls in various parts of African are forced to skip school while menstruating to avoid buying pads or improvising with the use of cloths.
A girl, who is absent from school when on her menstrual period for four days out of 28 days (in a month), will lose 13 days of learning. This is equivalent to missing two weeks of learning in each school term.
Within the four years of high school, the same girl loses 156 days of learning that is roughly equal to 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning in high school, research says.
Hence, the African girl child potentially becomes a school dropout, even though she’s still attending school. Besides, this poor girl still has emotional and psychological tension, which is associated with menstruation, to grapple with — in addition to physical health risks that come with using tree leaves, rags, old clothes, toilet paper, etc. in place of a menstrual pad.
Health Risks Associated with Poor MHM Due to Poverty
Let us look at the health risks associated with what these African girls and women use as a replacement to sanitary pads, which they cannot afford to purchase due to poverty.
To promote the reproductive health & rights of girls and women of African descent, menstrual health offers a pivotal opening to matters concerning Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).
There are various documented health effects for girls and women that don’t have proper Menstrual Health Management.
- Urogenital Infections
The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, maintains that inadequate MHM can present physical health risks to women and girls, and it has been established to have a relationship with reproductive and urinary tract infections.
A number of studies have stated that poor menstrual hygiene— with respect to personal hygiene or sanitary products used — causes higher levels of urogenital infection. This body of research demonstrates a strong and consistent association between inadequate Menstrual Health Management practices and a higher prevalence of lower reproductive tract infections (RTIs), especially Bacterial vaginosis (BV), Candida, and Trichomonas vaginalis (TV).
- Transactional Sex
This involves getting money, favors or gifts in exchange for sexual relations. In some parts of Africa, schoolgirls engage in transactional sex to get funds to pay for menstrual products. For the younger, uneducated, economically dependent African girls, this practice increases their risk of contracting HIV, STIs, unintended pregnancy, and dropping out from school.
- Menstrual Disorders, Dysmenorrhea, and Irregularity
According to experts, menstrual irregularities is a term, comprising a broad range of conditions, such as irregularities of timing, amenorrhea (missed menstrual periods), dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps), the amount of menstrual flow, and premenstrual syndrome.
Research has identified multiple causes for irregularity, which include general physical ill-health, the effect of medication, reproductive problems (like fibroids or endometriosis), stress, lifestyle factors.
Particularly, perennial problems affecting the African girls and women, such as socioeconomic factors, psychosocial status, and nutritional elements, have also been cited among the causes of menstrual irregularities.
Psychological Impact of Societal Stigma of Menstruating Woman and Girls in Africa
For nearly 50% of the female population (about 26% of the global population), who are of reproductive age, menstruation is a normal, natural, and healthy part of life. The overwhelming majority of women experience their menstrual cycle each month for around two – seven days.
Yet, as normal as this process is, menstruation is stigmatized in Africa — and indeed in every part of the world.
Discussion on menstruation is regarded with stigma in Africa
Since there’s a lack of information on menstruation, damaging misconceptions and discrimination have held sway. This could deny Adolescent girls (especially in SSA, which is worst hit sub-region in Africa) normal childhood experiences and activities.
In many African nations, menstruation is still treated and viewed as a taboo. There is so much discrimination in the homes and society with so many customs and traditions that border on discrimination, as some men won’t even eat food cooked by a menstruating woman/girl with. Moreover, there are limits on what a woman can and cannot touch when on her menstrual period.
In some instances, women are openly discriminated against by being told not to touch, go, and do certain things, such as cooking, among others. Among other effects, this causes social trauma for the African woman.
There is a silent stigma associated with menstruation as if it was a contagious decease when it is just a natural and healthy process in the life of every woman.
In light of this, it is an unassailable fact that stigma, taboos, and myths surrounding menstruation and related issues deny adolescent girls and young women from the opportunity to learn about menstruation, to imbibe beneficial and healthy habits.
One of the primary MHM components, puberty education is related to what the concept of menstruation is, how to handle the issue, and creating general awareness in wider communities on ways to tackle the sociocultural/religious perceptions and practices, centered on menstruation challenging African adolescent girls and women.
In spite of some progress, much more work still needs to be done. Treating female health in Africa as a priority is smart economics for this continent. Every woman and girl in the region deserves access to feminine hygiene products to participate fully and contribute to national development.
TAWF’s MHM Campaign: The Call
Menstrual Hygiene Management is a widely used term. According to WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program, MHM is defined as “Women and adolescent girls using a clean material to absorb or collect menstrual blood, and this material can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of the menstrual period. MHM includes soap and water for washing the body as required, and access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materials.”
From this definition, numerous impediments to proper Menstrual Hygiene Management can be identified:
- The use of unhealthy alternative sources for Menstrual Hygiene Management
- The lack of water to wash /bath
- Non-availability of privacy
- Lack of health approved sanitary pads
- Taboos and stigma that are associated with menstruation courtesy of customs and traditions
- Lack of soap to wash the body while menstruating or washing reusable alternative means such the pieces of cloth, due to poverty
Highlighting TAWF’s Call for MHM among African Adolescent Girls and Women:
- Our call is for African nations to significantly subsidize the costs of sanitary pads and related products to make them cheaper and easier for the poor African woman and girls to obtain. Africa must rise to stem the poor MHM menace in many parts of the continent!
- African Governments must provide free sanitary pads to poorer girls to ensure no girl child misses school due to inadequate Menstrual Hygiene Management. This must not only apply to girls in elementary and secondary schools but also to all poor young women in colleges and universities.
- Parents must purchase sanitary pads for their daughters. This should be done by both fathers and mothers without exception. Equally, husbands must be encouraged to buy sanitary pads for their wives freely without being seen as foolish in doing so.
- A father that thinks about the Menstrual Hygiene Management of her daughters will lay a solid foundation for his daughters about what menstruation is and how society must view it.
- Menstruation should not be shrouded in secrecy, spoken of in hushed voices, or seen as taboos or frowned at but celebrated as it signals maturity.
- Sanitary pads must be treated the same way we view toilet paper. For families that can afford them, sanitary pads must be bought and stored in their homes for use by female members of the family.
We at the TAWF realize the only way for women to achieve proper Menstrual Hygiene Management is through the usage of sanitary towels/pads, which can enhance good MHM.
Many African women and girls are left to scrounge and make use of unsanitary sources of Menstrual Hygiene Management to the detriment of their health and erosion of their dignity. All products that aid the maintenance and realization of proper Menstrual Hygiene Management must be viewed as “dignity products”, and NOT sources of revenue for struggling African economies.
To achieve this we recommend the removal by all African governments of all taxes associated with the manufacture and sale of sanitary pads/towels for use by women during menstruation as well as those used during times of giving birth. This will guarantee accessibility to this product for low-income women.
There must be an end to Menstrual Stigmatization Syndrome (MSS).
We are committed to Changing the Way Society Treats Its Women!