By Agbonkhese Oboh
“We have seen girls that got pregnant just to avoid worrying about menstrual hygiene products for 9 months.” That was Onyinye Edeh. Wunmi Yussuf is a civil servant in Lagos. Brenda Effiom is a social activist and a Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights specialist based in Cross River State and Bolaji Margaret is an Abuja-based youth advocate, while Faleye Ibrahim is an undergraduate at Lagos State University (LASU) and a photographer. The paths of these five persons may never cross. But the fire from something burning in their hearts lights the path for hundreds of girls and young women who cannot afford sanitary pads.
While monthly period makes life miserable for many Nigerian women and girls, these five Nigerians scrape resources together and reach out to rural girls and women with free sanitary pads, reproductive health lessons and how to “manufacture” reusable pads.
Mercy (not real name) looked forward to her monthly flow with trepidation. If she was home it was easier. But if the flow started when she was at school, she ran into the bush and made use of any available thing for pad. She had a sister-in-period-poverty in Sonia (not real name), who is now a sexual/reproductive health advocate.
Sonia’s periods are usually 10 days of hell. She would easily run through three packs of sanitary pads and the funds were not available. So her mother taught her “how to shuffle pieces of wrapper cut to fit between the legs. I went through the embarrassment of wrapper shift, overflow and insufficient water to clean up,” she recalls with pains. This is period poverty: lack of access to menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary pads, tampons and even water by low-income earners. Some suffer stigma, such as the women of Nepal who have to use a separate hut during their monthly flow. Neither Mercy, Sonia (who did not want their real mentioned) nor the Nepal woman is alone in these experiences of pains, shame and stigma that come with periods.
According to the International Federation of Gynaecologists and Obstetrics (FIGO) 500 million women and girls are living each month in period poverty (2019). And every day, some 800 million women and girls menstruate (World Bank 2020). UNICEF puts it in perspective when it noted that on average a woman menstruates for about 7 years during their lifetime (2018), and needs an average of 10,000 sanitary pads (OZY, 2018). This is far beyond the African woman, so one in every 10 school-age Sub-Saharan African girls misses school during their menstrual cycle. They are part of the 1.2 billion women across the world that do not have sufficient access to menstrual hygiene products (The Borgen Project). Enter Ibrahim, Wunmi, Effiom, Bolaji and Onyinye.
The period evangelists
As a young boy of 11 years, Ibrahim’s duties included buying sanitary pads for his elder sisters. So he was shocked when, now an adult, he visited a friend’s mother’s shop in March 2018 and encountered a young girl that could not afford a pack of sanitary pads. “She stood before me for a while, not knowing how to say what she wanted,” Ibrahim said. “But I knew and brought her the pack. But she said she does not have enough money to pay for that and asked for a smaller one, which would obviously not be enough for her. I was shocked. I never knew there were girls that could not afford sanitary pads.”
The short discussion with the girl opened his eyes, and the next month was his birthday. He usually celebrated it with the needy or a community project. But on this particular birthday, Pad Bank Nigeria was born “and that girl was the first girl I got some sanitary pads for,” Ibrahim recalled. “Since then we have reached girls in Sagbokoji Island, Ilaje Bariga, Somolu Bariga and Ayobo. We have also introduced reusable pads which can last for 7 months.
“Period poverty is worse than people realise. There was this girl that hawked fish. She used foams and rags during her periods. And some used banana leaves, cartons and Ankara materials. We had to even teach them how to use sanitary pads.”
For Wunmi Period poverty has been a big issue for the last couple of years. “Being part of the feminist community,” she said, “you look out for your own. I have heard of girls using tissues and other things that are pretty much unsanitary. So a couple of friends came together and we did something. There were also a few anonymous donations. We then went to Makoko in Yaba.”
Wunmi said some girls have their periods twice a month, depending on their circles. This is tasking for any already poor girl. “We got in touch with a Nigerian company that does reusable pads and bought 500 units. I haven’t done it for a while because of my job and a lot of background work that goes into it. You have to write the local government for approval. Sometimes you have to do it in conjunction with the local government. Then we had to tip the community chiefs just to guarantee our safety. That was a major turn off.
“If your heart is not in the right place, there is so much that will discourage you. Some beneficiaries feel you are part of the government and, therefore, what you are doing for them is their entitlement. I think it must be a byproduct of the poverty rate that makes them see anything from politicians as a bargain chip. So I can’t do it again. But I am open to partnering with or donate to an NGO on such a drive.”
Brenda’s Bren Care Foundation started with providing rural girls sanitary pads. “Then we realised it wasn’t sustainable,” said Brenda. “So we started teaching them how to make reusable sanitary pads. Besides being more economical, as one can be used for six months, the girls can see what’s coming out from their body and examine them for any anomaly. We have been to Biase, Yakurr, Obanliku, Akamkpa, Akamkpa, Akpabuyo, Calabar South, Calabar Municipality, Bakassi, Ikom and Yala (in Cross River).
“We break the silence on menstruation. There cases where some girls miss school because they do not have money to buy pads. So many were using tissue and any kind of wrapper they can lay their hands on. Now they have self-confidence. Another thing is we teach boys about periods too. That way they don’t see it as an anomaly and the girls can be free and comfortable when their periods start.
“My passion is community development, sexual and reproductive health and rights. I want young people to have quality health services. If the government and the relevant MDAs won’t consider the rural poor and their battles, we will keep trying our best. And we have been doing this since 2015.
“One of the girls we reached said she used to manage one pad a day because she couldn’t afford much. That would be very messy. But now she is part of the girls we trained who now trains other girls.”
Bolaji is the Founder of Stand With Girls Initiative. She said their vision is to ensure that girls, wherever they are born or found, reach their maximum potential. “So, period poverty, besides the hygiene implication, keeps many out of school. Therefore, it is one of the key issues for us.”
In 2017 they partnered with another advocacy group to distribute sanitary pads to over 100 girls in some Kaduna schools. “It was just two months supply,” she said. “It was all we could afford. In these rural communities (Angwan Fulani, Angwan Malamai), they barely have access to water. We have also been to internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp at Wassa community, Abuja, giving out pads. Many of the women and girls had been using rags and were happy with our outreach.
“But this year, to commemorate menstrual hygiene day, we plan to distributed sanitary products to about 500 girls and also teach them menstrual hygiene management. We will also be giving out menstrual cups. One can last for up to eight years. They are expensive but cost-effective.”
Edeh’s Strong Enough Girls Empowerment Initiative (SEGEI) has been actively involved in helping poor female adolescents/teenagers and young women between the ages of 10 and 23 years access menstrual products and information needed for them to safely and comfortably navigate their monthly cycle since 2017.
Communities in Abuja (Waru, Kurudu, Gbagalape, Kpeyigyi, Kabusa, Orozo) and Lagos (Igboelerin/Isashi) have benefitted from these outreaches. During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, SEGEI reached Kaduna communities in Zaria with menstrual products distribution in commemoration of Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, in collaboration with Brencare Foundation in Calabar, Cross River State.
In each of these outreaches, no fewer than 100 young girls were attended to with menstrual hygiene products. Every outreach starts with a one hour session of education. The education covers cycle dates, managing cramps, alternatives to regular pads, self esteem, decision making, STIs prevention and friendship.
“Now, mothers visit our outreaches to appreciate the menstrual products support to their daughters as they no longer miss school due to period poverty,” Edeh said. “We have seen girls get pregnant in these communities to save them the stress of worrying about menstrual products for 9 months.
“Furthermore, many of our girls are now much more confident and outspoken as a result of the outreaches. We often receive calls from some of the girls asking for our next outreach to their community.”
Does government know?
The challenges common to these individuals fighting period poverty are government’s seeming disinterest and funds. They mostly count on friends and other private citizens for resources. However, it is not possible that governments at various levels pointedly ignored this key issue. Period poverty is just one of the victims of the system failure that’s the norm in the country. In fact, two government policies were supposed to impact negatively on period poverty for the good of the girls and women. One is the Finance Act of 2019 and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) foreign exchange (forex) policy.
In the Finance Ac of 2019, locally-manufactured sanitary towels, pads or tampons are exempt from Value Added Tax (VAT). This is supposed to bring down the cost of menstrual hygiene products. Also in 2019, CBN released a list of 43 goods; importers of these goods cannot get forex from the official channels. So when they use other means, such as the parallel market, to source forex, the imported goods would come in at high prices. No single menstrual hygiene product is in the list. So between these two policies, the cost of menstrual pads, cups, towel, etc, should be economical. But it is not.
For instance, Virony is one of the foreign pads brands. The cheapest pack in an online shop as at January 29, 2021 was N2,000. It has 30 sanitary pads— 18 normal, 7 extra-long and 5 panty liners. Other foreign brands are Kotex Ultra, Dr Brown’s, Lady Sept, Soft Care, Sally and others. The locals are Always, Diva, Lady Care, Safe, Comfit, Ultrex, Lady Soft and others. As at December 2020, Always was between N250 and N300 for a pack of 7 pads. Currently it goes for N500. So the purpose of both policies sited above is defeated because the rural girl living below the poverty line of $1.90 (N724) daily cannot afford them.
Therefore, a final stop to the stigma, pains and health challenges associated with period poverty might be a long time away. But for Ibrahim, Wunmi, Effiom, Bolaji and Onyinye, the search is part of the solution. Everyone one of them said they would continue to share pads every chance they get; one girl at a time. And on Tuesday, November 24, 2020, Scotland became the first nation to make period products free. It means every local authority is legally bound to make tampons, sanitary pads and other things women and girls need for their monthly flows available for free to “anyone who needs them”. That is a period to period poverty millions of Nigerians girls would want at the end of their predicament that has become a sentence without end.
Whether this sentence will end soon is doubtful. For a start, policy-makers have to be conscious of how insidious period poverty is. That is only when specific legislation targeted at reducing period poverty, and implementation, can be expected. But for now, only the Ibrahims, Wunmis, Effioms, Bolajis and Onyinyes are doing both— creating awareness and reaching poor rural girls and young women with their widow’s mite.