Making menstruation matter to everyone everywhere

Menstrual Hygiene Day gives affirmation to the urgent need to break the silence and taboos around menstruation and raise awareness of the challenges women and girls face worldwide. Dr Michael Ojo, WaterAid Nigeria’s Country Representative, highlights some home truths about that special time of the month.


26 May 2016

Menstruation. Even without the cloud of superstition and stigma that surrounds the issue in many developing countries, girls and women around the world feel extremely self-conscious and reserved about their periods.

Consider then what it’s like for young girls and women in Nigeria and many African countries where menstruation is considered taboo and shrouded in silence; where young girls and women face harsh social taboos and negative social norms.

Worse still, many have no access to basic social amenities such as water and toilets.

Is it a wonder then that many women and girls in our society feel their menstrual cycle is something to be ashamed of and have themselves accepted the many negative beliefs and perceptions that exist on the issue?

Pages from a hygiene booklet that WaterAid Nigeria has developed for children as part of their hygiene promotion and school WASH programmes.

Above: pages from a hygiene booklet that WaterAid Nigeria has developed for children, as part of their hygiene promotion and school WASH programmes. Download the booklet here >

Reinforcing gender inequalities

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.

WaterAid Nigeria recently carried out a study on menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in Benue, Bauchi, and Plateau States in Nigeria.

The goal of the study was 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 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.

Girls need separate and private toilets in schools with water and handwashing facilities so they can continue going to school even during their period.
Girls need separate and private toilets in schools with water and handwashing facilities, so they can continue going to school even during their period.

Shame, fear and confusion

UNESCO estimates that one in yen 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.

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, 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 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 of effectively.

It’s really making sure we have services that respond to the needs of our young girls and women.

Breaking the silence

Every year and for three years now, the world has marked Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28 May.

WaterAid is a part of the global network of partners that thinks it’s important to break the silence and taboos around menstruation; to raise awareness of the challenges women and girls worldwide face due to their menstruation and to promote the importance of menstrual hygiene management.

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 and health is critical.

First and foremost however, we all need to come to the realisation that it’s okay to talk about menstruation.

We must accept that menstruation is not unclean or dirty and that like peeing and pooing, it is nothing to be ashamed of.

It’s time we made menstruation a normal part of conversation and life. It’s time we break the taboos, end the stigma and silence and support our women and girls to live healthy productive lives and reach their full potential.

It’s time we made sure that menstruation matters to everyone everywhere. Period.

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