By Tiana Bouma
Menstruation is perhaps one of the most ordinary individual female experiences but, in Africa, the experience often negatively impacts society as a whole due to the absence of clean water, sanitation, and products to cope with menstrual flow. The process of menstruation comes as a big problem to women and girls in many parts of Africa, contributing to both disempowerment and health risks.
Affordable and hygienic sanitary protection is not available to many women and girls and those from poor families usually cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. Therefore, they resort to using unhygienic rags and cloths, which puts them at the risk of infections. In some cases, girls engage in transactional sex so that they can raise the money needed to buy sanitary towel, which also puts them at risk of HIV and STI infections.
In regards to education, girls are vulnerable to missing school or dropping out due to inadequate water supplies and bad sanitation. Many are reluctant to continue their schooling when menstrual pads, toilets, and washing facilities are not private, not safe, or not available. In Kenya alone, UNESCO estimates that 2.2 million girls, approximately 50% of school-age girls, do not have access to sanitary pads.
Women and girls are more likely to skip school during their cycles if there isn’t adequate sanitation or a lack of education about menstruation. A girl absent from school due to menstruation for four days in a month loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning, in every school term. In a four-year period, this means a girl loses almost 24 weeks of learning.
Outside of physical issues that women and girls deal with during their menstrual cycle, they can also deal with stigmas and bullying from classmates and even teachers. Many girls end up missing considerable amounts of school or even drop out due to the humiliation and stigma related to menstruation.
Because there is such a stigma with menstruation and it still deemed a private issue, government and non-government organizations are not educating women and girls about their menstruation cycle. Cultural and social attitudes as well as a lack of information also render the discussion almost impossible between parents and their daughters.
Menstrual hygiene management and education is an urgent priority among women and girls, and essential products need to be made affordable to the poorest, most marginalized, and most remote girls and women.
Improving girls’ access to proper menstruation productions and education could lead to improved general education, improved health, and improved overall well being of girls and women. But menstrual hygiene isn’t merely a women and girls’ issue. It’s an issue that can impact entire families, societies and countries, because when girls and women thrive, everyone benefits.