Faith Katete and Mirriam Madiye-Features Writers
For women and girls worldwide, menstruation is a monthly reality, yet in many countries, serious challenges when it comes to managing periods still exist.
Myths, stigma and harmful gender norms around menstruation worsen the difficulties for girls and women across the world.
On Friday May 28, Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in commemorating World Menstrual Hygiene Day.
The World Menstrual Hygiene Day is a global advocacy day, which brings together voices and actions of non-profits, government agencies, individuals, the private sector and the media to promote good menstrual health and hygiene for all women and girls.
It creates awareness and change negative perceptions around menstrual hygiene.
This year’s menstrual hygiene day was commemorated under the theme, “Action and Investment in Menstrual hygiene and health.”
Menstrual hygiene can be a challenge to women and girls as a result of the social stigma and taboos surrounding it. These include the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and education.
The reality is that menstruation and menstrual hygiene management is an important reproductive health issue affecting many underprivileged women and girls in Zimbabwe and in many developing countries.
This may prevent some girls and women from attending work and school or them reaching their full potential in life.
It is against this background that local girls’ rights organisation Shamwari Yemwanasikana commemorated this year’s Menstrual hygiene day in Ward 8, Chikambi Village, Seke rural to sensitise the community on the importance of good menstrual hygiene management.
A total of 250 girls from the disadvantaged families from all the wards in Seke rural had the opportunity to receive dignity kits from Shamwari Yemwanasikana.
The dignity kits included a toiletry bag, a roll of tissue, a pack of sanitary pads, petroleum jelly and a bar of soap.
Gateway primary and secondary schools’ students also donated 500 packs of sanitary pads to the girls.
Speaking at the commemorations, Chief Seke (Governor Madzorera) who was the guest of honour highlighted the need for society to value the girl child.
“The way we list basic food items on our grocery list every month is the same way that we should do for the sanitary pads for the girls.
“A girl should reach the stage of puberty having the necessary requirements of sanitary ware and menstrual education in preparation of the new development she is to encounter.
“As society, let us value and prioritise the girls especially when they start to menstruate because this is one of the hardest stage in puberty as they encounter many challenges,” said Chief Seke.
Chief Seke highlighted that hygiene is a necessity.
“You should always be smart and make sure that you use the correct things during the menstruation time. Dirty pieces of cloth or unhygienic wear causes illnesses and diseases.
Hygiene and menstruation works hand in hand so let us give the girl child all the necessities she may need during this time,” he said.
He added that menstruation gives a woman some form of dignity.
“It is a stage that differentiates girls from boys and women and girls should not be ashamed to talk about it,” said Chief Seke.
The guest of honour urged the girls not to be ashamed to seek guidance about menstrual hygiene and health from their mothers and sisters.
Speaking at the commemorations, Shamwari Yemwanasikana Director, Ms Ekenia Chifamba said that there is need to create conducive environment for menstrual hygiene and health.
“Let us create an environment that promotes menstrual hygiene and health.
This day is not about the issue of sanitary pads, but there is more to it that concern the lives, challenges, development and health of the girls,” she said.
Ms Chifamba highlighted that society should value the day.
“As we celebrate the day, let us reflect on the challenges that we face on menstrual hygiene and health and the way forward so that some things that we take for granted now can be achieved in our 2063 Agenda.
Failure to value importance of the menstrual hygiene and health will make the us not achieve the 2063 Agenda,” she said.
Ms Chifamba urged the girls to take a lead in issues that concern them such as of menstrual health and hygiene
“As girls we should be on the forefront on many different issues including menstrual health, hygiene and even empowerment as these issues concern us.”
She thanked the government for the launch of the free distribution programme of sanitary pads to the girls in the country.
Plan International also held commemorations to mark World Menstrual Hygiene Day.
Speaking at the commemorations at Pandhari Lodge in Harare, Plan International’s sexual and reproductive health and rights expert Mr Maxwell Mhlanga said millions of women and girls were kept from reaching their full potential because of shyness on menstrual problems.
“Improving menstrual health and tackling period-shame can improve girls’ attendance and performance at school, break down taboos and misconceptions around menstruation, raise girls’ self-esteem and enable girls to fully participate in all aspects of society,” he said.
Mhlanga said challenges faced by girls and women around menstrual health and hygiene are social stigma and taboos surrounding menstruation. He said these often prevent girls and women from attending school and work.
He added that most women particularly in developing countries lack access to menstrual hygiene products, sanitation infrastructure and menstrual hygiene education.
“When sanitary products are hard to obtain, individuals may be forced to resort to using unhygienic alternatives that can increase their risk of reproductive and urinary tract infections.”
“We also distribute menstrual hygiene materials in schools and teach girls how to manage their periods so they feel confident and stay in school.”
“By improving menstrual health and tackling period-shame we can improve girls’ attendance and performance at school; break down taboos and misconceptions around menstruation; raise girls’ self-esteem and enable girls to fully participate in all aspects of society,” said Mhlanga.
Young women and girls also suffer from discomfort, endure teasing and shaming and also exclusion from everyday activities.
They may also be less productive during school and other activities due to pain, discomfort and fear of leaks.
One in 10 school-aged African girls do not attend school during menstruation, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Thobekile Sibanda an 18-year-old school girl from Epworth said she has period pain and during her menstrual days she cannot go to school and also cannot afford to buy sanitary pads.
“I cannot go to school when I am having periods, this is affecting my school work.
“I am using a cloth during my menstrual days as I cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. I heard that a dirty cloth can cause cervical cancer and kidney failure,” said Thobekile.
A lack of knowledge and a combination of anxiety and shame has led to a high number of girls who skip class during their monthly menstruation.
This feeling of embarrassment is only worsened by comments made my male students.
Incidents have been reported where girls are teased and mocked if they are seen with blood stains on their clothes and skin, without notice.
Lack of education and awareness has also been cited as a barrier to menstrual health management.
Thobekile said lack of knowledge also leads to misconceptions, taboos and negative cultural and social norms around menstruation.
“We are lacking knowledge about menstrual health that’s why we always face stigma and always feel uncomfortable during menstruation,” said Thobekile.
Taboos, myths and shame surrounding menstruation can lead to teasing, shaming and exclusion from daily activities and have a negative effect on girls’ feelings of dignity.
Limited access to water, sanitation and hygiene services, particularly in public places, schools, places of work or even in health institutions is another major obstacle to women and girls.
Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC) marketing and communication officer Mrs Fadzayi Maposah said poor menstrual hygiene is caused by lack of education, persisting taboos and stigma, and limited access to hygienic menstrual products.
She said poor sanitation infrastructure undermined educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls in communities.
“There is a need for everyone to be involved in menstrual health at home, schools and in communities,” said Mrs Maposah.
“There is also a need to reach out to men and boys, thus people need to freely talk about menstruation.”
As a result, girls and women end up preferring to manage menstruation at home.
This means that they are unable to participate in cultural, educational, social and income-generating activities during the days when they are having their periods on a monthly basis.