In a collective effort to draw attention on menstrual health and hygiene management, the Namibian government and the United Nations have hosted the first national commemoration of menstrual health and hygiene day in Namibia.
Held at Gobabis under the theme 'Empowering women and girls through excellent and safe menstrual health and hygiene', the event has set the tone for the development of policies and programmes to eliminate the social, economic and cultural barriers to safe and dignified menstrual health and hygiene management.
Deputy health minister Juliet Kavetuna said this is an important day, and that girls and women need to have adequate sanitation facilities when they face challenges in getting sanitary pads.
"When girls do not have adequate sanitation facilities, when they face challenges in getting sanitary pads, and when discriminatory social taboos about menstruation surround them, they will continue to be deprived of opportunities to participate freely and comfortably in school, play or other social activities.
"This day is an important platform to remind stakeholders that all our girls require dignified, safe and private facilities and products to remain clean, confident and secure enough to continue with daily activities during menstruation," Kavetuna said.
In Namibia, poor women and girls do not always have access to sanitary products, and are forced to make use of unsanitary and ineffective materials, which can introduce diseases and infections.
A society for family health Water and Sanitation Hygiene (Wash) needs assessment report of 2014 found that only 29% of schools have flush toilets, and over a quarter of girls (28%) use separate toilet facilities from boys.
The report further said that more than half of the schools (51%) make no provision for girls about menstruation like hand-washing stations with soap and water, and rubbish bins inside the toilet for the safe disposal of pads.
"Only 17% of females living in the rural areas have access to improved sanitation facilities, and this deprives women of the privacy and infrastructure required for healthy, safe and hygienic menstrual management."
Meanwhile, education permanent secretary Sanet Steenkamp said girls became shy and stressed during this period, and many therefore opt to stay away from school if they do not have the right facilities.
"Products and information to manage their menstruation in a dignified manner is needed, which is why it is difficult for us to sit back and not pay attention when the lives of young girls are at stake. The government, communities and families must be encouraged to support the girl-child with information, facilities and products to help them manage the time of menstruation," said Steenkamp.
Within some cultural groups of Namibia, menstruation remains a taboo, often associated with uncleanliness and shame. Within these cultural settings, women and girls are forced into seclusion during menstruation, and parents do not feel comfortable sharing information about this condition with their growing children.
The United Nations resident co-ordinator, Rachel Odede, said people should not feel uneasy or embarrassed when talking about menstruation.
"Talking about menstruation should not make people feel uneasy, or embarrassed. The menstrual health and hygiene day, therefore, helps to break the silence that shrouds the topic, and helps to build awareness that this is a normal, major stage of puberty in girls," she noted.
Odede added that when people talk freely and positively about menstruation, and when policies and facilities are in place for menstrual health and hygiene management, girls will be empowered to know that there are no limits to their daily activities and lives during menstruation.
Currently, the government is making efforts to address the gaps in menstrual health and hygiene as one of the strategies to achieve the sustainable development goals for health, access to education, gender equality, access to water and sanitation, and to ensure female participation in the workforce for sustainable economic growth.
Together with key stakeholders and under the banner of the national school health task force, the government is increasing efforts to ensure that information, facilities, services and products, including those related to menstruation management, are readily available across Namibian schools.
The government and Unicef have also supported the establishment of menstrual hygiene management clubs as part of the school-led total sanitation programme.
Through the 52 clubs which have so far been established, both girls and boys in schools are equipped with knowledge about menstruation, and empowered to know the facts about this natural process, while also shunning the myths and taboos.
Positive spin-offs are being realised by this renewed attention to menstrual health and hygiene management as there is reduced absenteeism among girls at the target schools, while guidelines have been put in place to tackle the stigma attached to menstruation.
As a practical gesture to promote the hygienic menstrual management, a local youth organisation, Afriyan, mobilised sanitary pads from UN agencies, FNB Namibia and NYC Afriyan members.
More than 1 500 girls will benefit from this noble gesture to provide safe and hygienic menstruation among Namibian girls.
Beyond the activities of the main event, week-long community-based engagements and interactions will be undertaken in the regions to spread the message among communities and schools.