Girls’ needs around menstruation have been neglected by health and education systems around the world, leading to inequity in education and missed opportunities for girls, says WaterAid Nigeria on the world’s third commemoration of Menstrual Hygiene Day.
Menstruation is an important issue yet it is shrouded in silence because of deeply rooted taboos and negative social norms. On any given day, some 800 million women and girls are on their periods across the world, and hundreds of millions of them are subject to ostracisation, shame and risk of infection because of the stigma that still surrounds menstruation.
Menstruation is a woman’s monthly bleeding. During menstruation, the body sheds the lining of the uterus (womb). Menstrual blood flows from the uterus through the small opening in the cervix and passes out of the body through the vagina.
On Saturday, 28 May, the world observed the 2016 Menstrual Hygiene Day – a day that affirms the urgent need to talk about periods and break the silence, taboos and negative social perceptions around menstruation. According to the organisation, it is a day to remember and commit to doing something about the women and girls in the world without access to safe water and a safe toilet to manage their menstrual cycle.
More than a billion women and girls around the world must manage their periods without a safe, private place to go to the toilet. And nearly half of schools in low- and middle-income countries like Nigeria do not have basic toilets – meaning girls who are menstruating risk embarrassment and shame during this time, and may decide not to attend school.
Cultural beliefs and myths about menstruation are perpetuated by society and often portray women and girls as inferior to men and boys. This reinforces gender inequalities, often constitutes discrimination and has a negative impact on the fulfilment of the universal human rights to dignity, health and education of women and girls.
In many countries, women and girls are not allowed to cook, go to the farm or are even banished from the family home to an outdoor shed during each menstrual cycle. WaterAid Nigeria recently carried out a study on menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in Benue, Bauchi, and Plateau States in Nigeria to explore and understand existing MHM practices and the context that might impact positively or negatively on the implementation of a MHM programme in Nigeria.
The study revealed deeply rooted attitudes and myths surrounding menstruation including the belief that a menstruating woman or girl is cursed and possessed by evil spirits and brings bad luck. Such beliefs result in restrictions being placed on girls and women during their menstruation – including exclusion from attending religious services and even holding their infants in some of the communities. To make matters works, these women and girls lack access to safe water or private toilets at home, in schools and in public places. The effects are devastating.
On the Menstrual Hygiene Day, WaterAid sought to contribute to breaking the silence and building awareness about the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential. The group calls for cooperation with the education and health sectors as well as those working in reproductive and sexual health to ensure girls are prepared for the onset of menstruation, to ensure they can care for themselves in a dignified and hygienic way, and to dispel the myths and taboos that often accompany menstruation.
Dr. Michael Ojo, WaterAid Nigeria’s Country Representative, said: “In some communities in West Africa, women and girls are not allowed to use water sources and latrines during menstruation – the very facilities they need the most during this time! We must move away from the dichotomy of placing value on menstruation as a sign of fertility, celebrating the birth of new life and at the same time excluding women and girls and making them social pariahs during their time of menstruation. There is simply no logic to it whatsoever.
“Over half of the girls interviewed in our study said that they only learned about menstruation after their first experience so when we talk about menstrual hygiene management, it’s not about providing sanitary pads. It’s more than that. It’s really about helping young girls and the people around them, the men in their lives – fathers, brothers, husbands etc., to have the information awareness and the knowledge around this issue. It’s about helping girls to have the confidence to manage their hygiene safely and with dignity and also to ensure that wherever they are- whether it’s at home, school or even in other public places; that provision is made for them to be able to manage their menstrual periods safely and hygienically and for the products to be collected and disposed effectively. So it’s really making sure we have services that respond to the needs of our young girls and women.
“Proper menstrual hygiene management for women and girls requires inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools and public places; provision of protection materials at affordable rates; behavioural change and communication and a review of existing policies to address this important issue. Everyone has a role to play. At WaterAid Nigeria the integration of menstrual hygiene management in all of our sanitation and hygiene interventions – with a focus on Equity and Inclusion, WASH in Schools and WASH & Health is critical.”
UNESCO estimates that one in 10 adolescent girls in Africa miss school during their menstruation and eventually drop out. A new article in the medical journal PLOS Medicine, co-authored by WaterAid, has highlighted a lack of guidance, facilities and materials for girls to manage their periods at school, affecting their health, their education and their self-esteem. Girls facing shame, fear and confusion around periods have this exacerbated when there is no clean source of water, soap, or safe, private girls’ toilet with space to wash in.
A study by USAID has shown that safe, private toilets for girls in schools, combined with private places to wash, can boost their enrolment by 11%. There is no denying the critical role access to water and sanitation plays in helping women and girls, manage menstruation hygienically and with dignity as well as realise their full potentials.
Every year and for three years now, the world has marked Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28. WaterAid says it’s a part of the global network of partners that thinks it’s important to break the silence and taboos around menstruation; raise awareness of the challenges women and girls worldwide face due to their menstruation and promote the importance of menstrual hygiene management.
“Menstruation can no longer remain a taboo subject. By giving this issue the attention it deserves, we will help ensure every women and girl has access to water, safe toilets and somewhere to wash by 2030. By talking about periods, we can help normalise this natural process and help girls and women live healthier and more dignified lives,” added WaterAid.