“ACT ON MENSTRUATION WITHOUT HESITATION”
Menstruation is a life-restricting monthly event for girls and women across Uganda and negatively impacts on daily activities and self-esteem. There is great need countrywide to empower and educate especially girls so that they are increasingly positive about their periods and are able to stay in school during their periods.
Menstruation is a sign of a woman’s health and fertility, yet it is surrounded by shame, secrecy, humiliation, fear, taboo, stigma and embarrassment. The women and girls without access to the water, toilets, materials, disposal facilities, privacy and information they need to manage their menstruation safely and with dignity suffer most.
Menstrual Hygiene campaign will serve as a neutral platform to bring together the media to create a united and strong voice for vulnerable girls in school, helping to break the silence around menstrual hygiene management. This campaign will be earmarked for reflection on key menstrual concerns and to rally action for the promotion of menstrual hygiene.
Menstruation and the onset of puberty in girls should not raise an eyebrow. It should be recognized as simply a normal part of growing up. Instead, for millions of vulnerable children it leads to huge disadvantage and prejudice.
A friend, telling me of her experience growing up in Slums, illustrated this vividly. She remembers that when she started her periods any hint of conversation about it brought such an air of embarrassment that she soon learned to keep it to herself.
With no sanitary pads available she used papers and old clothes to stop the flow of blood – an agonizing endeavor during her 10km walk to school. The hard paper and clothes always caused painful bruising and open wounds on her thighs. Although her school did have toilets, they were dirty and without water, so she couldn’t clean herself.
A need for education.
The stigma made it difficult for her even to find out what was happening to her body. Eventually she was taught about puberty in biology lessons, but there was no discussion in class about what this meant in society, and nobody challenged the negative beliefs associated with menstruation. “It was too embarrassing,” she said. “Boys bullied us and made fun of us. They would write sticky notes on my back – ‘I am dirty’ or ‘I am stinking’ – and the teachers refused to intervene.”
Boys and girls later went to separate lessons on puberty, she recalled. Boys emerged from their sessions feeling proud of the changes in their bodies, whereas girls were embarrassed and ashamed.
Education about menstruation and simple, hygienic facilities to manage menstruation can help keep girls in school and help change their futures.
The stigma associated with menstruation is still a major driver of gender inequality in many slums. Many cultural and religious norms, often grounded in patriarchal assumptions, seek to prevent others from having contact with menstruating women and girls to ‘avoid contamination’ or avoid ‘becoming impure’. Such practices reinforce the subjugation of and discrimination against women, rather than treating periods as a natural biological process and a mark of fertility.
Menstruation should not be a matter of shame or impurity. It should be associated with pride and dignity.
The stigma and disadvantage begins right at the onset. Girls who are menstruating at school need sanitary towels, clean latrines, places to change and safe water. They also need non-judgmental, factual information. Without these facilities the school environment is unhealthy, discriminatory and dangerous, to the extent that menstruation is one of the main reasons why girls in developing countries leave education.
We also asked them more of how they manage their periods, most said they use old cloths to soak up the blood. Very few of them used sanitary pads because of the cost and also the shame of being seen buying pads. Many of the girls admitted to missing school during menstruation.
We went on to talk about social and cultural taboos and traditions around menstruation, which the girls felt pressured by their families to respect. The three which stood out to us were:
- You should not leave the house during menstruation, especially in the evening.
- Elderly women forbid us from drying our cloths outside because if boys see the cloths, they will lose their sight.
- Some foods are restricted during menstruation like egg, onion, fish etc.
Unable to afford or access proper menstrual products, many girls and women rely on crude, improvised materials like scraps of old clothing, pieces of foam mattress, toilet paper, leaves, and banana fibres to manage their menstruation – all of which are unhygienic, ineffective, and uncomfortable. This is hardly what we would consider a “solution”.
NB: 1 out of 10 African schoolgirls skips school or drops out of school entirely due to lack of menstrual products and poor access to proper sanitation, according to UNICEF. This critical unavailability of sanitary products in developing countries is a major barrier to education for girls of school-going age. The inability to effectively manage menstruation contributes to absences of up to 4-5 school days each month, equating to as much as 20% of the academic year intentionally skipped, simply due to menstruation. Eventually many of these girls drop out of school entirely, increasing their likelihood of teen pregnancy health complications and early marriage, and further limiting their future career and economic opportunities.