In Niger, an initiative challenges menstrual stigma, promoting knowledge and hygiene. Through community engagement and mentorship, it not only empowers girls but also confronts the pervasive issue of menstrual poverty head-on. Hamzat Ibrahim Abaga reports on how this initiative is transforming lives and challenging stereotypes.
Zainab Yahaya’s first encounter with menstruation was a bewildering blend of fear and confusion, as she watched blood flow from her private parts. Uninformed and isolated, she attributed it to mere “bed-wetting.” Like countless girls around the world, Miss Yahaya lacked the vital education on menstrual health management.
“I remained silent, keeping my secret when I realized it was blood. I quietly took a bath, changed my clothes, and washed my blood-stained cloth. But deep down, I remained unsure about what was happening,” recalls the 18-year-old student from Maryam Babangida Girls Science College, MBGSC, in Minna, Niger State.
It wasn’t until the Salma Attah Foundation for Women and Girls Support (SAF4Women) visited her school that Miss Yahaya and her peers received the crucial knowledge they had been missing.
“SAF4Women enlightened me about menstruation. They advised against playing or engaging in sexual activities, warning of the risks of pregnancy,” Miss Yahaya explains.
Miss Yahaya’s experience is far from unique. In Nigeria, approximately 37 million women and girls struggle to access essential menstrual hygiene products, often due to poverty and a lack of unbiased information. Moreover, over a quarter of women in Nigeria face challenges in maintaining privacy during their menstrual periods, while globally, more than 500 million women and girls confront inadequate menstrual hygiene management, MHM, services.
According to a World Bank report, one in ten girls in Africa misses school during her menstrual cycle. The prevalence of misinformation and the absence of basic knowledge perpetuate stigmas surrounding menstruation and contribute to menstrual shame.
Termed as “period poverty,” the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, adequate sanitation facilities, and waste management perpetuates girls’ absenteeism from schools, hindering their education and leaving them marginalized.
Period poverty and menstrual shame are not limited to any one corner of the globe. The World Bank estimates that 500 million menstruating individuals worldwide lack access to menstrual products and hygiene facilities. Nigeria is no exception, with approximately 44% of its population earning less than $1.90 per day.
For 16-year-old Asma’u Shehu, a senior secondary student at Zarumai Model Secondary School in Minna, the foundation’s visit transformed her understanding of menstruation.
“When SA4Women visited my school, they taught me the correct duration for using pads and how to use them properly. They also emphasized that, in the absence of pads, menstruating girls can use a clean white handkerchief as an alternative, provided it is thoroughly clean,” Shehu said.
A Reprieve for the Girls
The foundation, led by media practitioner Amrah Aliyu, advocates for comprehensive menstrual hygiene education in secondary schools and raises awareness of period poverty. Established in 2019, the foundation has reached over 20 schools, 35 communities, more than 3,000 women and girls, and about 80 volunteer staff across Niger, Kaduna, Kano, and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
Among the factors that motivated Aliyu to start the initiative include the desire to contribute to positive social change and create a more equitable society. She said witnessing the impact of her work and seeing individuals and communities’ benefit from the initiatives brings a sense of fulfillment and fuels her determination to do more.
To achieve her goals, Ms Aliyu’s foundation randomly selects schools to advocate for menstrual health education. They write to the school management for approval, then visit the school to engage students and management on the need to include menstrual hygiene in the curriculum.
At the school, the foundation teaches students about the menstrual cycle, sex education, infection risks from improper hygiene, how to use period kits in real life, and how to properly dispose of materials. During these conversations, the foundation emphasizes the need for continuous menstrual education and offers to share knowledge with teachers.
“For every outreach, we tell them about puberty, changes in their bodies, and menstruation, including premenstrual symptoms (PMS) and cramps. Afterward, we give them sanitary pads and show them how to use them, how long they can use them for, and how to dispose of their pads,” she said.
The SAF4Women Foundation adopts a unique approach in addressing menstrual hygiene, setting it apart from previous interventions. Recognizing the sensitive nature of the topic and the cultural taboos surrounding menstrual health, the foundation takes a comprehensive approach that goes beyond mere information dissemination.
One key aspect of their approach is community involvement. The foundation engages with schools and local communities through various campaigns and workshops, actively involving school teachers, community leaders, and parents. This inclusive approach allows girls to comfortably discuss and address their menstrual health concerns.
Another distinctive feature is the incorporation of mentorship programs. Experienced volunteers and older girls serve as mentors, offering guidance, support, and answers to questions related to menstrual hygiene. This mentorship fosters a sense of sisterhood and enables girls to seek guidance from trusted individuals, normalizing discussions about periods.
The approach is effective for several reasons. Firstly, by involving the community, it ensures respect for cultural norms and sensitivities, leading to greater acceptance and participation. Secondly, the mentorship component establishes trust and empowerment among girls, encouraging them to adopt healthier menstrual practices.
Making a Difference
So far, two schools in Niger State have adopted menstrual hygiene education: Zarumai Model Secondary School and Maryam Babangida Girls Science College, MBGSC. Madinatu T. Ahmadu, the biology teacher at MBGSC, told Daily Nigerian that advocacy visits to the school have increased adoption levels of menstrual hygiene education, with an upswell of awareness and cleanliness amongst her students.
Aminu Umar, a computer science teacher at Zarumai Model Secondary School, enthusiastically shared the transformative impact of the menstrual hygiene initiative. He emphasized that it has not only introduced essential knowledge to students but has also catalyzed a broader culture of cleanliness and well-being throughout the school.
Mr Umar noted that the initiative has served as a catalyst for positive change, shifting the collective mindset of both students and staff, and instilling a deep sense of responsibility for maintaining a clean and hygienic environment.
Furthermore, Mr Umar observed that the ripple effect extends beyond menstrual hygiene, giving rise to a holistic commitment to personal and environmental cleanliness. Students, inspired by the newfound awareness, have become more conscious of their surroundings, actively engaging in cleanliness drives and taking pride in a school environment that is not only academically enriching, but also safe, healthy, and aesthetically pleasing.
In the quest to empower their daughters with knowledge and dispel any lingering myths or stigmas, mothers in the area have taken proactive steps towards embracing the importance of menstrual education.
In an interview with DAILY NIGERIAN, Amina Alfa, mother of six in the Brighter area in Minna, stated that she recognized the significance of the menstrual education and seized the opportunity to have an open and sensitive conversation with her daughters, Zulaihat, 18 and Habiba, 15. She created a safe and comfortable environment where her daughters could freely ask questions and express any concerns regarding menstruation.
With unwavering determination, Ms Alfa passionately explained the biological intricacies of menstruation, assuring her daughters that it’s a natural and healthy process. She pledged her unwavering support, adding that she would not let her children face this significant phase of their lives alone.
Similarly, Amaka John, a mother in the Sauka Kahuta area of Minna metropolis, said she has embarked on a mission to educate her daughter, Mary, about menstrual hygiene from a young age. Recognizing the value of early preparation, she said she is determined to personally guide Mary on proper menstrual flow management.
“Girls Deserve Better, Let’s Banish the Stigma” – Experts
Discussing the critical health implications of inadequate menstrual hygiene, Professor Ifeoma Okoye, the Director of the Centre for Clinical Trials, UNN-CECT, at the University of Nigeria, underscored the vulnerability of girls to various infections when they lack access to clean menstrual products or proper sanitation facilities. She pointed out, “Nasty culprits like bacterial vaginosis, urinary tract infections, and even reproductive tract infections can strike, wreaking havoc on their health.”
Mrs Okoye further emphasized the profound impact of unhygienic menstrual practices on the mental and emotional well-being of girls. She highlighted the risks of decreased self-esteem, social isolation, and even mental health disorders.
Dr. Valda Martins, CEO of Succeeding Against All Odds, a non-governmental organization focusing on women, girls, youths, and people with disabilities, sheds light on how societal myths and beliefs hinder girls’ knowledge about menstrual hygiene. She emphasized the lack of reliable information sources for these girls as they transition into womanhood, leaving them with misconceptions or no knowledge to pass on to the next generation. She said the lack of understanding can have far-reaching consequences, affecting reproductive health, mental well-being, social status, and overall quality of life.
Furthermore, Ms Valda highlights the severe implications of this lack of knowledge. Early marriage and vesicovaginal fistula, VVF, due to underage childbirth are among the consequences. Others include cervical cancer, disabilities, broken marriages, and marital crises.
Ms Valda proposes effective remedies to combat menstrual poverty. She calls for public enlightenment programs through radio and social media platforms, emphasizing the government’s responsibility to intervene by freely distributing sanitary pads and ensuring accessibility for all girls. With these measures, we can envision a future where girls no longer miss out on education due to menstruation, and every girl can afford the necessary menstrual products for her monthly cycle.
Despite well-intentioned initiatives aimed at alleviating period poverty and incorporating menstrual hygiene education into school curricula, significant obstacles remain. Limited resources hinder efforts to reach as many rural communities as desired, especially given the prevailing security concerns in Nigeria’s northern regions.
Muhammad Alfa Muhammad, the foundation’s project manager, elaborated on these challenges, explaining that the organization is still working to secure statewide approval for the complete implementation of its program. He also highlighted the security concerns, noting that the initiative is unable to extend its campaign to every nook and cranny due to the rampant insecurity issues in the northern parts of the country.