By Jonathan Iwunze
Bojande Nguveren had a rather awkward first menstruation experience— menarche. She was 15 at the time and had gone to the village market to buy some items. Unknown to her, blood had started flowing and made a mess of her skirt. It was a market woman that noticed she was soaked with blood, took her to a corner and helped her clean up. The woman also gave Bojande one of her wrappers to replace the blood-stained skirt. Having no knowledge of menses, Bojande’s journey into womanhood was greeted with a series of hit and miss attempts at finding the ideal options on managing her monthly flow effectively.
That challenge continued until she got married. Once married, she faced yet another hurdle; the courage to ask for money for menstrual hygiene products from her husband. To fill that need, she would put aside some money from what is meant for housekeeping. Times were tough, and the funds were not always enough for food let alone to get sufficient menstrual pads.
For Ngulun Comfort, menarche was at 14 years of age. She was at a religious conference when she felt pain in her lower abdomen. Before long, she could feel the blood flowing out of her. Thankfully, she had gotten some premenstrual education from her mother. She was able to clean herself up and find some clean cloth materials to absorb the blood flow. However, she never had the courage to discuss the subject with anyone. She would always wash and dry her makeshift menstrual hygiene product indoors to avoid anyone seeing them.
Bojande and Comfort grew up in NKST 1 and UGONDO communities respectively, where myths and taboos on menstruation were common. One that compulsorily instill low self-esteem in women, as the stigmatization of menstruating women made it a subject that was frowned at.
A 2020 study by the World Bank titled; “Periods Don’t Stop for Pandemics – Neither Will Our Efforts to Bring Safe Menstrual Hygiene to Women and Girls,” estimates that every day, some 800 million women and girls menstruate. Being able to manage their menstruation safely, hygienically, and with confidence and dignity is critical not just for their health and education, but also for economic development and overall gender equality.
However, without access to safe menstrual materials, and access to education or information on safe menstruation practices, the cycle of ignorance only worsens and increases the dangers to the lives and health of menstruating women and girls.
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Plan international notes that the challenge to ensure safer menstrual practices is even greater in rural areas, because of either the unavailability of cheap and affordable menstrual materials, or a lack of awareness on ideal menstrual practices.
There are many Bojandes and Comforts in Africa. However, the rural women of Logo area of Benue State, Nigeria, have come up with unique local solutions to the challenges of period poverty and the myths that keep many bound. The views of traditional leaders, men, girls as well as menstruating and menopausal women in these Benue communities are engaging.
Challenges and myths
Nine out of 10 married women admitted that they had almost never had discussions about their monthly cycles with their husbands. Only one out of 10 girls of menstruating age interviewed had some sort of premenstrual knowledge, and 10 out of 10 girls had never talked about their periods with their fathers and considered it absurd to do that.
Chief Pius Igbaukum, the kindred head of Ugondo community speaks on certain myths and practices that were native to the people of Logo, and his knowledge on menstruation. “Menstruation only comes about with the birth of the full moon. Usually without warning, unsuspecting women and girls started menstruating and had to be isolated in a special room where she was made to sit naked or with an overflowing skirt on a bamboo bed, that had a hollowed mortar underneath which was made to collect the menstrual blood.
“She was forbidden to meet anybody during the period of her flow. Food was brought to her by a designated person. Then after her menstrual period, she was taken to the stream to be bathed. This process was to cleanse her ceremonially before she could resume interactions and association with others.”
He admits that most of those traditions were no longer in practice since the advent of the Christian faith. However, the inability of most women to break the silence on menstruation thus far shows that deeply rooted beliefs and practices do not just fade out overnight, as many may keep nursing those myths right in their hearts in subtle forms as is evident in the interactions with the men.
Eight out of 10 men interviewed were of the view that menstrual blood brought about ‘bad luck’ to the men. They opined that it was misfortune to meet their wives during the period of her flow, or even eat food that she cooked. Living in an area that has long had a history of wars and the continuous intrusion of herdsmen on their farmlands, the people who are predominantly farmers double as warriors to defend their territories. Thus, they believe in the potency of charms for protection and victories, and the avoidance of menstrual blood was not negotiable for them, lest their charms fail.
In an interactive session with the men, one said that he had strongly warned his wife never to come close to him during menstruation. She would risk ending their marriage if she ever made the ‘mistake’ of exposing her menstrual wares to him or slept in the same room with him.
John Gowon admitted that in ignorance, he ended his marriage of many years simply because his wife could not manage her menstrual flow hygienically and always had an offensive and unbearable stench, which irritated him. ‘If only I had learned of how best to support her before now, I wouldn’t have ended our marriage’, he says regretfully.
With beliefs of these sorts that encourage the avoidance of menstruating women because of the perceived or imagined gains to their communities, the issue of stigmatizing these women comes naturally without effort to boys and men as they see no wrong holding on to these concepts which is believed to be for the ‘greater good’.
Thus, women and girls not having much of an option involuntarily take their assigned places in the scheme of things and resign themselves to managing their menstrual processes in utmost secrecy and absolute silence. The methods thereby employed by these women to manage their menstruation in silence, being unhygienic, only births infections and a host of other diseases.
The 2015 article, Menstrual Hygiene Practices, WASH Access and the Risk of Urogenital Infection in Women from Odisha, India, cites that urinary tract infection is one of the most prevalent forms of infection in girls and women of menstruating age caused mainly due to unhygienic menstrual practices.
A 2011 report by the World Health Organization notes that an estimated 50% of women have had a UTI at some point in their lives. And Urinary tract infection (UTI) accounts for 8.3 million office visits and more than one million hospitalizations, for an overall annual cost of $1 billion.
Using rags from dumpsite as menstrual pads
Terscar Akighirga, a menopausal woman, recounted her ignorant menstrual practice that caused her severe health troubles. She used rags collected from dump sites as absorbents for five long years, during which she had severe vagina discharges and the stench from her menstrual blood was repulsive.
She says, “I spent time and even had to borrow money to cure the many infections that I suffered during those years of ignorance. On one of my visits to the health center, I was advised to avoid using dirty rags and tissue papers as they always leave residues behind that can cause severe infections. They recommended the use of clean cloth materials instead.
“I had a neighbor who was a tailor and there was no lack of cloth materials that were remnants of dresses that had already been made. So, I would usually go and pick up these materials from the tailor and without washing, use them to pad up during menstruation because I assumed they were ‘already clean’. My troubles only worsened as I was always battling with one infection or the other.”
Terscar’s situation no doubt represents that of millions of women and girls around the world who suffer severe health challenges because of ignorance and unhealthy menstrual practices. The situation becomes bleaker when one considers the fact that menstrual materials are not very affordable to rural dwellers as a good number of Nigerians live below the poverty line.
A 2019 National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report shows that over 82.9 million Nigerians are considered poor by national standards. On average four out of 10 individuals in Nigeria earn and live below N137,430 per year. That is N376 per day. The poverty headcount rate in rural areas currently stands at 52.1% against 17.4% in urban areas.
At present, depending on the location the retail value of commercial sanitary pads stands at N450 for a pack of Lady Care containing 10 pieces. A pack of Virony, containing 30 pieces and 5 liners cost between N1,300 and N1,500. N400 for a pack of Dry Love pads containing 10 pieces; N600 for a pack of Soft Care pads containing 12 pieces and 5 liners. Always, containing between 7 and 8 pieces, depending on the length of the pad, is between N400 and N850. And N400 for a pack of Zena containing 7 pieces.
“The number of pads used each day depends on whether the one menstruating has a light or heavy flow. In most cases, the number of pads used may be anywhere between two to four pads, multiplied by the number of days the person normally menstruates, which may be between three to seven days,” reveals Ms. Boluwatito Awe, a WASH expert and hygiene hero.
Ms. Elizabeth Ikechukwu, a teacher and urban dweller relates that the factors that determines the brand of pad she uses for menstruation are not simply dependent on whether the pad is affordable or not, but whether it provides the desired comfort.
However, for rural dwellers who are mostly at a disadvantaged position because of period poverty, choosing convenience over affordability is not much of an option. Therefore, it is easy to identify with rural dwellers who might consider buying commercial sanitary pads for menstrual purposes as a luxury, rather than a necessity.
A turning point
Being a caterer, Bojande had been contracted to supply food at an earlier event facilitated in her community to train locals on how to make reusable pads. Even though she was not invited to be part of the training, the exercise piqued her interest as she could not help but listen in and observe closely how the pads were made. Terscar and Gowon on the other hand, were part of the audience that attended an awareness campaign under the aegis of the RUSHPIN Programme, with United Purpose as the facilitating body. The campaign was aimed at sensitizing and educating rural dwellers on safe menstrual practices, and realigning of their views on menstruation with a view to ending stigmatization and taboos associated with it.
Thrilled by the new-found knowledge they gathered from the awareness campaign and in a quest to end the stigmatization of menstruating women and girls in their communities, these individuals embarked on a mission to change the face of their respective communities in their own little ways. This was going to be no easy task but the desire for change was at the heart of this very quest.
However, for some of the men like Gowon to have the courage to educate others on the need to shun taboos and myths that have long held sway and contributed greatly to the stigmatization of their women and girl-children, the mission for change had to start right in their very homes.
Gowon decided to set aside some savings to enable him buy pads for his wife during her period. He would also ensure that her menstrual wastes were disposed of properly himself, as he would always dig the ground and bury same. “I try to be more understanding of her emotional setup during her periods, and that makes her happy,” he reveals.
Making a difference
In their quest to change the narrative and gift to every woman and girl-child in their respective communities something that they never had, the gift of premenstrual knowledge and knowledge of menstrual hygiene management (MHM), Bojande and Terscar joined the WASHCOM arrangement.
WASHCOM is a group of select men and women at the community level who have the common goal of managing and sustaining better access to water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Educating and sensitizing people on matters relating to hygiene is also a core component of the WASHCOM arrangement.
In her role as a WASHCOM member, Bojande facilitates sessions comprising men, women, boys and girls in her community to educate them on the natural process of menstruation and how women and girls can be supported to break the silence. She also makes reusable pads which she sells at a very low cost to discourage the use of unhygienic menstrual materials which is common in her community.
As a part of her routine, she also seeks out members of the girls-brigade to offer them free and insightful knowledge on menstrual matters.
Terscar on the other hand is sparing no effort in educating women and girls in every home in her community on the need to practice good menstrual hygiene. She hopes that no menstruating woman in her community suffers the troubles she endured in ignorance due to unhygienic menstrual practices.
Mr. Jooji Samuel, the WASHCOM Chairman of NKST Central, affirms that he and his executives will spare no effort in reaching every corner of their community including schools, to introduce menstrual education as a necessary part of the learning process.
Chief Samuel Nev Mbam, the kindred head of Akur community who has always been in the forefront of matters relating to sanitation and hygiene, pledged to enjoin other relevant stakeholders and community gatekeepers in the quest to educate their men on the need to end the stigmatization on menstruation and provide necessary materials that are MHH compliant for their wives and daughters.
The efforts of these individuals no doubt is helping to make a difference in their respective communities as more women and girls like Ngulun Comfort are gradually learning to discuss the subject of menstruation openly with their husbands and fathers. Men like Gowon are being more understanding of the emotional needs of their wives and daughters and providing for their menstrual needs. However, these hygiene heroes can only do so much as they are merely volunteer workers and having their individual needs to cater for, they are limited in their reach and impact.
Bojande and Terscar believe that better results can be accomplished, and more people reached in other communities with the aid of NGOs and other government programmes.
Therefore, the need arises for proactive measures to facilitate more awareness campaigns to educate the women of the health hazards associated with the use of unhygienic menstrual materials, and unsafe menstrual practices. Because, without breaking the barriers that hinder the men from understanding that the cycle of menstruation is both a natural and healthy process, which is essential to life, the women may never fully succeed in breaking the silence and adopting healthier menstrual measures.
Hence, open dialogue should be encouraged, and more interactive sessions facilitated to engage the men to come up with realistic action plans that will support their menstruating women and daughters, thus, bringing down the great wall that has long separated them.
Iwunze is a WASH, Solutions and Data PhotoJournalist