By: Windsidnoma Djiguimde (Ida)

Menstruation is a normal female bodily function but for many women and young girls in  developing countries, the experience can be a nightmare. This is sometimes due to the limited, or lack  of access to water and sanitation and hygiene products to manage period flow. The World Bank estimates that at least 500 million women and girls worldwide lack access to adequate facilities for managing their menstruation. Menstrual cycle disrupts daily normal activities for many women who do not have enough resources to handle their cycle in a healthy way. For young girls, it means missing days from school, therefore hindering their learning outcomes; and for women, it implies not being able to go to work and losing wages. Period poverty, the lack of access to hygienic products due to economic limitations, touches millions of women and girls in developing countries and constitutes a barrier to gender equality.

Period absenteeism and public health concern 

A report by UNESCO in 2014 states that approximately 1 out of 10 girls in Sub Saharan Africa miss school during their menstruations. This is due to their inability to afford sanitary towels and the lack of proper toilets in school facilities. School aged girls are more vulnerable to the plight of poverty, due to either coming from a poor family or lacking agency and having to fend for themselves.

Period poverty is a public health concern. Past research shows that many women and young girls reported using rags to contain their flow. In many cases, they run the risk of infections because of the lack of proper cleanliness. Also, the rags do not appropriately absorb the blood flow and get soaked quickly, staining their clothes. In an article by Maya Oppenheim in the Independent, one girl reported tying her pullover on her waist to hide the stains on her skirt and to avoid male classmates from making fun of her. The stigma that is attached to periods in certain parts of the world where it is seen as an evil sign, impurity, and a curse further contributes to girls not seeking help and dealing with it with shame and secrecy. Most girls are left alone to cope with their periods because it is such a taboo topic that their parents fail to talk about at home and the school curricula does not address the topic. The World Bank statistics state that girls are likely to be absent from school about four days in a month due to period related reasons.   

In Tanzania for example, 16% of girls reported missing school during their period. 

The case of period poverty is so severe sometimes that certain women engage in transactional sex in efforts to supply themselves with sanitary products. Indeed, research by UNICEF highlights that the prevalence of trading sex for sanitary pads was about 65% for women in the Kibera slum of Kenya. Transactional sex has negative implications, especially for young girls who are at the early stage of their sexuality and not fully aware of their body’s functions. In fact, young girls run the risk of contracting Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and unwanted pregnancies. This leads to girls becoming teenage mothers, dropping from school, and being condemned to a life of poverty because they lack the required skills to obtain a good job to take care of themselves and their children.

Another reason girls miss school during their menstruation is the lack of adequate bathroom facilities where they can change. The lack of access to water and toilets has a grave interference with children’s education, especially for girls who need these resources to manage their period hygienically and privately . Lack of toilets also expose girls to diseases and sexual assault, leading many to dropout of school during puberty. 

Sustainable Development Goals at stake 

It goes without saying that all stakeholders should commit to combatting period poverty and such fight should take a rights-based approach. This implies that it is a human right for women to have access to basic sanitation. This approach will urge decision makers in governments to address the issue in policy design and implementations, therefore guaranteeing sanitary protection to poor and marginalized groups as well. Failing to address period poverty by local government and international NGOs is not only a major obstacle for women’s empowerment but a great barrier in achieving some of the Sustainable Development Goals such as 1 that seeks to eliminates poverty, 3 that promotes a good health and wellbeing, 5 that advocates for gender equality, and 6 for clean water and sanitation.

Taking action on a local and global scale                                                                                                                                                    

The discourse on development and gender equality must take period poverty into account and seek sustainable ways to address it in order to afford girls the same opportunities as boys. For example, on June 2018, the Kenyan government passed a law to provide free sanitary towels to adolescents in school. This is in an effort to improve girls’ access to education and their attendance rate. On the same note, Uganda abolished taxes on menstrual hygiene products while Zimbabwe subsidizes local manufacturers. Such government initiatives are commendable and hopefully will inspire other states to follow the path. 

Also, some local organizations have taken this issue at heart and are designing reusable and affordable sanitary products with local resources to provide sustainable ways of managing their periods to women and girls. That is the case with charities such as DaysForGirls and AFRIpads who have been doing notable work in many developing countries, providing menstruation kits and menstrual health education to women and adolescent girls. Such efforts not only break the cycle of poverty, it also allows women and girls to happily experience menstruation and live in dignity.

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