Pemba — The day that the violent conflict began in Palma on March 24, Rosina* left her home and fled into the bush - and was caught off guard by her period. "This was a very challenging moment as I was not carrying anything that could help me manage my menstruation with dignity," she said.
"I had to isolate myself for five days as I had a heavy flow. I used the nearby beach and relied on salty sea water to wash myself."
A day after the fighting began in Palma, Beatrice*, who also fled the area at short notice, experienced the start of a difficult period that was painful. She had nothing but her skirt to help her manage the heavy flow.
Displaced by the conflict in Palma, they were part of a group of women who described their personal experiences of managing menstruation in trying times while also dealing with the associated myths, to Felicia Jones, UNFPA Sexual and Reproductive Health Specialist for East and Southern Africa, during her recent visit to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Reception Centre in Pemba district.
Since 2017, the ongoing conflict in northern Mozambique has displaced nearly 670,000 people, including an estimated 160,000 women and adolescent girls of reproductive age and 19,000 pregnant women. UNFPA is working around the clock with partners to provide life-saving health and protection services to the women, girls and youth most affected by the crisis.
In Pemba, the port has been closed, which means that those fleeing the fighting are spending long days on the road, either walking or taking whatever transport they can to reach the town. Many of them arrive with only the clothes they were wearing when they left, leaving women and girls vulnerable when their period starts.
"Upon my arrival here in Pemba, I received a dignity kit which made me feel better because in it there is underwear, water, pads, a toothbrush, soap and other essential items for personal hygiene," said Ana*.
At the IDP reception centre, displaced people are registered before being placed in resettlement camps or with host families in their - often overcrowded - homes. UNFPA supports the IDPs through two local NGOs, Amodefa and Mueda, that provide sexual and reproductive health services and information, including family planning, as well as mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), and psychological first aid. The two organizations also give referrals services for clinical management of rape.
Millions of women and girls who are caught in conflict situations across Africa do not have the ability to menstruate with dignity. To help them cope, UNFPA provides displaced women of reproductive age with dignity kits.
Lack of timely and accurate information
Informative conversations about menstruation should start well before adolescence to prepare girls mentally and enable them to embrace the journey into womanhood. Yet for many girls, this is not the case.
"When I was in class, my friend told me I should go home as my skirt was soiled. When I got home my mother did not want to explain anything to me. Even now, am not [able] to talk to my mother about my menstrual cycle," said Ana.
She is determined to change this trajectory for her daughters. "Mothers think it's taboo and also because of lack of information, they are afraid to have an open discussion about periods. Now that I am informed, I will discuss periods with my children."
Alisha* had her first period at the age of 15. "I had never had heard about menstruation before and I was scared, thinking something was wrong," she said. She told her mother, who assembled a group of traditional female leaders to educate her on menstrual hygiene but in the process, she missed five days of school. "Now, I educate my young girls to know about the bodily changes that are expected to happen.
It's time to bust the myths - period!
Beyond the need for information to deal with their periods, women often have to navigate myths surrounding menstruation.
"When I was young, my mother would not allow me to prepare the coconut milk," recalled Gabrielle*. "She said I had blood on my hands so I should not touch food because I am dirty."
It's an all-too-common misconception.
"When I had my period, I was not allowed to cook. If I wanted to bake a cake, my mother would say the cake will not be good because when you have [your] period, anything one prepares is not worth eating," said Maria*.
In their respective communities, women are often asked to do other household chores, such as sweeping and laundry, which are considered 'acceptable' when they are menstruating.
"Women continue to experience this even today because what is a harmful practice has unfortunately been normalized as part of tradition and has been passed on from generation to generation," Maria explained.
Encouraging men and boys as period allies
Men and boys have an important role to play in busting these kinds of myths around menstruation.
"Many people think it is taboo to talk about menstruation and sometimes girls are not comfortable to talk about their menstrual cycle," said John*.
"Why should we avoid a discussion on the menstrual cycle? It is vital to understand a woman's menstrual cycle so that one can offer the necessary support to a woman or adolescent girl who is going through [this]," he added.
To learn more, register here for the African Menstrual Health Symposium from May 25-27.
* Names changed to protect privacy.