Stand Up Tall and Break the Taboo of Menstruation in Africa

A young school girl emerges from a latrine holding a used Pee Poople bag on June 8, 2012 at Kibera slum, in the Kenyan capita
A young school girl emerges from a latrine holding a used Pee Poople bag on June 8, 2012 at Kibera slum, in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where poor sanitation is endemic and threatens the lives of the local community. A cheap and innovative sanitation solution called 'Pee poople', which consists of a bio-degrable plastic bag pre-loaded with urea is set to change the lives of residents in slums and other informal settlements by digesting human waste quickly and hygienically thus diminishing people's contact with human excrement. Lack of proper toilets has seen numerous slum residents result to defacating outdoors in open fields or river systems greatly increasing the chances of contamination of ground water which leads to poor sanitation and the resulting diseases that claim the life of a child every 12 seconds according to research. AFP PHOTO/Tony KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages)

Different from what many people believe, menstrual health is not just a "women's issue." We need to get people -- boys and girls, men and women -- to talk openly about menstrual health in every part of the world. Female hygiene should be at the top of each government's list of priorities. In 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that "the greatest return comes from investing in girls and women. When they are educated, they drive development in their families, communities and nations." Without access to toilets, sanitation facilities, menstrual pads and information, girls and women are unable to be the drivers of development they have the potential to be.

While many governments and non-governmental organizations support several issues affecting girls and women in developing countries, menstrual hygiene management often gets overlooked. Millions of girls in sub-Saharan Africa do not attend school due to taboos and stigma related to menstruation. They do not have access to proper sanitary pads and instead they have to improvise with mattresses, blankets, newspaper, rugs or feathers. Using these devices instead of proper hygienic pads can cause severe health risks, such as infections in girls' genitalia -- but these devices are also ineffective and humiliating, often resulting in bloodstained uniforms, leading to bullying from particularly male peers and even teachers. Many girls end up missing considerable amount of school, or at worst even dropping out, due to humiliation and stigma related to menstruation. In some cases, girls engage in transactional sex so that they can raise the money they need to buy sanitary towels, putting them at the risk of HIV and STI infection. Alternatively, young girls are forced to skip school during the time they experience monthly periods to avoid both the cost of pads or use of cloths. 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.

With this high rate of school absenteeism, a girl literally becomes a "school drop-out" while she is still attending school, and in addition, has to deal with emotional and psychological stress associated with menstruation.

Menstruation has become like a curse not only to African women and girls, but also to entire societies on the continent. Since menstruation is largely a private issue, the social damage is often hidden and rarely makes the news headlines. There are also cultural and social attitudes that render discussion of menstruation almost impossible especially between parents and their daughters. The need for affordable sanitary products for women and girls in Africa is a major public health issue that governments need to prioritize in their planning. They need to work together with civil society organizations and others to ensure that the appropriate services are made available, accessible and affordable. Menstruation hygiene management is an urgent priority among women and girls, and essential products need to be made affordable also to the poorest, most marginalized and most remote girls and women.

Some African governments have made notable progress in the area of menstrual hygiene. For example in Kenya, the government dropped its import tax on female sanitary products in 2011 to help reduce costs by 18 percent. African civil society organizations, NGOs and some UN bodies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization have all publicly acknowledged that there is a significant link between the poor provision of menstrual hygiene solutions and low female participation in education. However, much more still remains to be done. Governments need to recognize that ensuring access to sanitary wear for women and girls has not only positive public health implications, but implications on girls' education and wellbeing on a much broader level. Educating girls also remains the single best policy for reducing fertility.

Prioritizing women and girls' health in Africa so girls can remain healthy, attend school and enter the workforce makes economic sense. Every woman and girl should be able to have access to the right products that enable them to take control over her menstruation. Access to water and sanitation is an internationally recognized human right, essential for protecting and realizing other basic rights -- and yet, this issue still receives far too little attention on both national and global levels. Improving girls' access to proper menstruation products could lead to improved education, improved health and improver overall wellbeing of girls and women -- but menstrual hygiene is not 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. It's time to give this issue the attention it deserves.

On May 28th, celebrate the world's first annual Menstrual Hygiene Day. Join the conversation on Twitter using #MenstruationMatters and #MHDay and do your part to erase the taboo and to spread awareness about the importance of menstrual health.

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