28 May 2019

Africa: Educating Girls About Menstruation and Menstrual Hygiene

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Photo: Alex Esagala/Daily Monitor
A reusable sanitary pad with flaps and fasteners at the side. With access to these, many girls would not absent themselves from school during menstruation.

Surrey, England — The organisers of Menstrual Hygiene Day say that although there has been a lot of good work on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) either currently underway or already completed, we are a long way off from achieving an even playing field for girls and women worldwide.

Menstruation stigma persists in some parts of the world due to cultural practices whilst in others hygiene products are so heavily taxed as to render them inaccessible for some girls.

In some countries, MHM is not treated as a critical component of reproductive health training for adolescents, and as such it does not feature in school lessons and, where it does, teachers do not feel empowered to teach about MHM with comfort. Yet, the ability of teachers to teach about MHM freely can contribute to the breaking down of taboos around menstruation.

There are concerns about fragmentation and its impact on menstrual hygiene education.

In this regard, fragmentation refers to the lack of common goals and joint monitoring that in turn impacts media attention, political will plus more investment in menstrual hygiene education in needed.

These are issues that we at Let Them Help Themselves have encountered in the Ntungamo district of SW Uganda where we have been working with schools on menstrual hygiene education since 2016. We trained a team of local girls who serve as menstrual hygiene ambassadors and as part of their role, they go into schools to provide information about menstrual hygiene as well carry out basic research on knowledge about menstruation.

Amongst our ambassadors' findings are some eye-watering statistics, for instance, on average 53 percent of the girls they spoke to did not know what menstruation was before they experienced it and in one of the schools, this figure was 80 percent.

As well as gathering these statistics, the ambassadors are also confronted with questions about menstruation. The questions are, about hygiene, the prevention of infections, frequency of periods, bloating, clots, weight gain etc. A combined education programme on menstrual hygiene in this instance, would ensure accurate information and menstrual hygiene education for boys, men, teachers, health workers, politicians and other professionals. In particular, teachers need to be empowered to provide accurate information and support for pupils and in turn, break down negative social norms

It would also ensure the availability of water and sanitation facilities in schools, privacy and dignity for menstruating as well as policies that reduce the cost of menstrual absorbents.

Why isn't this happening? Can it all be blamed on the lack of common goals or fragmentation about education on menstrual hygiene management? Whose job is it to educate girls about periods?

You would think that, it is the role of parents, however, our ambassadors report that some parents they speak to do not have the confidence to have these conversations with their children, whilst some do not have an understanding of periods. This was exemplified in a conversation our MHM ambassadors had with a schoolgirl at one of the schools they visited:

"I missed a midterm test because I didn't have pads. I live with my father and when I asked him for money to buy pads he told me that he had no money to waste on useless things. I stayed away from school because I didn't want to risk an accidental leak having seen one of the girls in my class be humiliated when an accidental leak left a bloodstain on a chair."

Given such attitudes amongst some the parents, where should girls go to access information and menstruation products?

Whilst coordination of findings and good practice matters, our work demonstrates that what is needed is the mainstreaming of menstrual hygiene education into development agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Gender Mainstreaming agenda.

It is not enough to have goals that ensure increased school registration for girls who then drop out due to a lack of MHM. In the long run, this has implications for a country's economic development due to a large number of girls who become adults that are trapped in poverty because they lack skills to create their own employment or access employment elsewhere.

Prior to rolling out the MHM programme to more schools in Ntungamo district we ran a trial in one of the schools. We wanted to find out whether providing free pads would improve school attendance amongst girls. We were surprised to learn that as well as an improvement in attendance; the school had saved money during the trial and the school environment improved. This was because, in the absence of recycling facilities for disposable pads, the school would use petrol to burn the used pads. As a consequence, this would expel noxious fumes within the school grounds.

These findings are anecdotal but paint speak to a need for nation-states to pay attention to MHM in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goals and as well as ensure that gender has been mainstreamed into their development policies.

Our fight to enable girls to access information on menstruation and hygienic absorbents continue and you can be part of it by making a donation to our campaign here.

The author can be contacted via Twitter @idahorner or email info@lethemhelpthemselves.org

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