For centuries, women and girls have faced cultural and social isolation during their menstruation which is the normal monthly vaginal bleeding that occurs in every woman’s life from puberty to menopause.
Also known as periods, menstruation has always been a taboo topic in many societies where the biological cycle is often described as “unclean”, “disgusting” and “sacred” among many other negative connotations.
The evolution of materials used to help soak the blood and prevent embarrassment for women – papyrus, plants, wool, rags, tampons, sanitary belt, disposable menstrual pads – has not freed some women from the stigma associated with menstruation.
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The most affected are girls in poor communities who miss school during their periods. According to UNESCO, one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their period while others lose 20 per cent of their education making them more likely to drop out of school.
A few African countries including Kenya, Zambia, South Africa and Botswana have launched programmes to give girls free sanitary pads to keep them in school.
The grim statistics and terrible experiences of girls resulted in the formation of Days for Girls International (DfGI), a nonprofit organisation founded in 2008 by Celeste Mergens to provide girls access to menstrual care and education.
With a global team in Uganda, Ghana, Nepal and Guatemala; enterprises and independent projects in central and southern Africa, Days for Girls has reached over a million girls with their affordable washable menstrual kits produced using local materials that could last for years.
“I was so happy because sometimes you don’t get the money to buy the pad and when you use the pad you have to change maybe every 3 hours or so. And the next month you have to buy and sometimes I use one and a half [packages]. But with this one when I use it I only wash it and dry it then I can use it for the next month too,” says a student participant at one of DfGI’s health education programmes in Accra, Ghana.
DfGI uses community partnerships, education and social enterprises to shatter stigmas and limitations surrounding menstruation for women and girls. It is quite a difficult task in Africa where public discussions about menstruation started barely 10 years ago, says Appiah Boakye, DfGI Country Director for Ghana.
“The shift towards talking about menstruation, period poverty and gender discrimination is something that has only been discussed publicly within the past 5-7 years … Days for Girls addresses both awareness and MHM [Menstrual Hygiene Movement] education while enabling girls and women to access a hygienic solution to care for themselves,” says Boakye.
There is a strong opposition to the cheap washable kits by companies producing disposable pads which have been proven to contain dioxins, synthetic fibres and petrochemical additives that can cause irritation to the vaginal region.
“In countries like Uganda, we’ve seen strong strides towards recognizing washable pads as a legitimate alternative … In Ghana, we receive push back at times from organizations and/or companies with business associations with disposable pad companies. But we aim to target women and girls in under-resourced and low-income rural, remote and conflict areas. There we are received with open arms. We share the options, educate and then allow the person to make an informed decision,” adds Boakye.
She explains that their washable pads are environmentally-friendly and “designed to absorb well and wash out easily due to the trifold design and pad materials: cotton and flannel. They also include a waterproof barrier to shield the panty and underwear from stains.”
Like DfGI, many other nonprofit organisations are providing girls with affordable alternatives to sanitary pads like the Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) which has developed affordable maxi pads from banana fibres transformed into an absorbent material.
Started by young entrepreneur Elizabeth Scharpf in 2008, SHE built a production site in Eastern Rwanda where they produce cheap banana fibre pads that serve as alternatives to imported sanitary pads.
While the interruption of school for many girls in Africa is becoming a thing of the past due to the availability of affordable sanitary pad alternatives, the world continues to mark Menstrual Hygiene Day every May 28 to ensure that the challenges girls and women experience in relation to menstruation ends.
Days for Girls International (DfGI) also celebrates its Global Girls Festival from October 5, each year, and reaches over 100,000 women and girls in 24 countries and 5 continents with menstrual health solutions. Over the course of 28 days during the festival, DfGI’s global network of over 50,000 Days for Girls volunteers, 850 Chapters, Teams, and Clubs, and 97 Enterprises work to make, assemble, and distribute sustainable reusable menstrual health kits, alongside the delivery of women’s health education in 18 nations.
Until menstruation ceases to become a reason for a girl to be absent from school, then the fight is not over.