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‘We are breaking silence on menstruation’

Urmila Ch, an Indian human rights activist with emphasis on menstrual hygiene, spoke with Sunday Vanguard on her campaign, tagged, ‘Breaking the Silence on Menstrual Hygiene’, in partnership with Olutosin Oladosu, during her visit to Nigeria.

By Funmi Ajumobi

Purpose of visit

The major purpose of my visit is to bring awareness on menstrual hygiene. We focus on Lagos and Ondo States but Olutosin Oladosu and I have a common vision to work across Nigeria and Africa. We have reached out to 700 people through our workshop to sensitise them on the best practise on menstrual hygiene that girls should practice like using cotton cloth correctly.

Why menstrual hygiene in Nigeria despite other areas of human rights you are into? 

I realised that all of women’s problems are related to keeping quiet and not speaking out. I am a survivor of marriage violence. I lived with a man who used to beat me very badly to the extent I had to go through surgery. I am still nursing emotional scars from the father of my only daughter. He was my childhood boyfriend from four years old, and my first boyfriend. You can imagine the emotional trauma I had from the hands of someone I loved profoundly. I walked out of the marriage because it was a matter of being alive. When I walked out, I pledged to myself to talk about my problem because, for eight years in my marriage, I hid it from my parents and everyone that I was being beaten. Nobody in the society knew that my husband, who is a successful medical doctor and from a good family, was hurting me. All of my work experiences with the United Nations (UN) and as a journalist, I kept realising that women have one problem. They put a false face that everything is going on well in their lives, and they like to smile about it. I did a story on menstruation in 2012 which won an award. When I went to Mumbai to receive the award, I sensed that it was God calling me to use my time and personal suffering to enhance the quality of life women are living. The article was titled, ‘We Don’t Talk About It’. When I went back home, something changed in my heart. I realised that the award was an indication for me to work on menstrual hygiene management using my first experience of domestic violence to break the culture of silence. That is why my initiative is not called menstruation but ‘Breaking the Silence’. Just like Olutosin Oladosu here in Nigeria is doing, it is not about menstrual hygiene alone, it is about empowerment, helping other women to overcome their problems, it is about networking, self care like what we enjoy today at the Transformational Centre in Ibasa. So it has been seven years of breaking the silence.

What I teach is not rocket science, it is a simple package of information but you will be surprised to know that as simple as it seems, it is lacking across the world. I teach the biology of menstruation.

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What do you see that is peculiar to Nigeria on menstrual hygiene since you came?

So far we have trained about 700 people and this figure is not good enough to represent a nation like Nigeria. With the population of Nigeria, we need to have about 10,000 people trained to render this service. I don’t want to hurt the sentiment of people and misguide government. It is not about Nigeria. It is about the 700 people we trained. What I found out among the 700 people we trained, from Ondo and Lagos is that none of the girls had local awareness on menstruation before their first menstruation. They entered menstruation and puberty without parental guidance. So how can parents leave their children to step into adolescence which is a turbulent stage alone?   As babies, you are taught on how to drink milk to how you take solid food; they hold your hands to take the first step but puberty, where you are transiting to adult, there is no advice.   This was a departing point on the 700 we trained. Secondly, wrong information is being given to the girls by community elders and mothers, that if they go near a boy, they will get pregnant. So the fear of pregnancy is instilled into them. Parents should give their wards the right information. Let them know a child comes with responsibility. Only the right information can protect your daughters.

What did you give to the 700 girls you mentored in your tour?

There are different NGOs working on menstrual hygiene management but each has its individual narrative on sexual reproductive health. I discourage individual narrative because it is better to use the United Nations or international content on training to prevent wrong information going out to girls and to protect local sentiment or hurting local content.

What I teach is biology of menstruation, according to science. I teach why girls menstruate, understanding the blood that comes out, the days and years it takes to menstruate. So, it is not about stories, it is scientific facts. It is also about using different products, correct use of the products because nobody taught us that. Thirdly we teach them how to dispose the used product, because they just throw it anywhere they like. And it is polluting the water body. It is polluting the animals, polluting the environment because it is plastic.

Plastic takes 500 years to decompose

During these years, it is going to pollute your water body, your animals, your soil and crops and we are so ignorant about it and nobody is checking. In India, we have done research and we know the extent of damage. We know how many metric tons of sanitary napkins are being used in a month. We teach girls how to keep clean all the time. We also teach personal hygiene management to persons with disability. We teach menstrual hygiene management in schools and public places. We also distribute sanitary napkins and, in Nigeria, Olutosin mobilised more than 1,000 sanitary pads with her organisation’s funds as free gifts during our trainings.

Are you then advising that we adopt cotton or cloth for our menstruation in order to check environmental pollution?

This is a very large issue. If you don’t give this now, what do you give? Cloth-based is very expensive and tampon is not available. Until we sensitize and create policies to produce sanitary that contains no plastics, we can’t stop people from using what is available. It’s a policy thing. The manufacturers need to be sensitised to stop using plastic-based products for sanitary napkins. There is no other option for people who are using it for now. We are pressurising and the campaign is on. The companies have the money to produce environment friendly products. It is not that we don’t care about the environment but, for now, women are very important. We are focusing on them as we push for policy change.

What is the best way to dispose of sanitary napkins?

Don’t throw them into water body, pond, well, or near somebody’s pool.

Don’t throw them in the toilets because the toilets are full of used sanitary pads in offices, homes and everywhere else.

In Nigeria, we have trucks that drain our toilets, yet they empty the contents in the ocean? It is wrong because it is pollution. And we have individual level disposal, institutional level disposal and country level disposal. At individual level, you have to wrap your pad with the pouch provided on each pad and no woman is doing this because they are not aware. This information is more important than the one in the books. You have to look for a dustbin. If you are running a school, it is your responsibility to have dustbins in designated corners. In government offices and private companies and public places, these should be places where only girls should know and not boys. There is need for awareness first and policy change later. Institution level ensures that there are lots of dustbins. So it is about household planning, institutional planning, government planning. It is all about awareness and policy change coming later. Why we have many of these diseases like dysentery and diarrhoea is because of pollution by sanitary pads. It is a matter of public and community health, and also because it leads to diseases.

You also have to make sure the dustbin is clear and burnt, buried and decomposed.

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