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#ChooseToChallenge: Fighting Period Poverty for Girls in Africa

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Research finds that up to 30% of girls in South Africa miss school because of Period Poverty and their inability to afford menstrual products. Such loss of schooling days could lead to girls falling behind their male counterparts as well as missing out on the opportunities that come with completing school.

Sadly, the South African case is typical of most African countries. And that further impresses the need to tackle period poverty and ensure that menstruators can access a full education and career opportunities as financially empowered woman lift up their families and communities too. 

South Africa-based menstruation activist, speaker, and academic who works towards the destigmatization of menstruation and seeks an end to period poverty, Candice Chirwa, sharing her personal experience, said:

The first time seeing period blood stained on my underwear made me think that I was going to die.

When I had to announce this event to my mother, the conversation I had was filled with fear. I had experienced blood from injury while playing with friends, but I had never encountered seeing blood coming from my vagina.

Being told that I needed to hide my period from everyone caused me great worry. I thought that I was the only person who experienced this, and not telling anyone made me feel ashamed. I couldn’t have envisioned when I was 10 years old and scared about my first period, that 15 years later, I would be advocating for period education in South Africa.

I remember having learned about periods in school only from a biological perspective. The lessons left out important information about our bodies, the use of sanitary products, and dismantling the period taboos.

I realised the need for this when having a conversation with one of the students I mentor in 2018. She had mentioned how there is little to no discussion about periods.

Candice Chirwa, South-African Menstruation Activist. Image Source: Global Citizen

Seeing participants leave our menstrual and sex education workshops openly saying the word “vagina” or “menstruation” without flinching, always leaves a smile on mine my team members’ faces at Qrate. I acknowledge that menstrual education alone won’t address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties, but it is a good place to begin to eradicate the fear a young person might feel when they have their first period.

Although I am grateful for having a conversation with my mother about the basics of menstrual health, I wish and hope that in the future, the first time a menstruator encounters their period, it is met with celebration and not with fear. That the words, “you’ve transitioned into adulthood” aren’t met with subjective and restrictive myths but rather met with objective and helpful period advice and tips.

Menstruation matters to me because it is still unacceptable to talk openly about menstruation, to make it visible. When we think about how in particular society portrays menstruation, it is usually in the format of horrific PMS jokes or first menstruation horror stories, and this results in socialising young menstruators to expect to hate their periods, even before they have them. It fascinates me how a natural and biological event carries a lot of taboos and myths restricting social behaviours.

Furthering this discussion, with Candice having made such salient points, the way (teenage) girls and young women view their periods is also important in the discussion of dignity. And menstruators are also entitled to have menstrual health factored into the human rights agenda, especially in Africa.

When it comes to access to products, sanitation, and information needed for managing their period, the African society needs to ask itself whether menstruators would be able to manage it without the basic necessities, which are too often lacking in many African societies. Africa needs to think about the menstruators who don’t have access to sanitary products, clean water, safe facilities, and sexual education.

Gender inequality, extreme poverty, and harmful cultural traditions all also contributing to making menstruation a difficult time. In South Africa, a study found that adolescent girls can miss up to five days of school per month due to menstruation. This is a clear indication of period poverty. When that time of the month arrives, there is a range of economic and social burdens on young girls during this time of their transition into adulthood.

Many view menstruation as unworthy of public debate because of the societal perceptions that associate menstruation with “privacy” and “shame”. However, by menstruators not having the room to talk openly about their periods, those of them who go to school and work are placed at a disadvantage at those times, compared to their male counterparts, as they would lack the moral support of their colleagues to navigate those periods gracefully and with their deserved dignity.

While we must note that attitudes to menstruation are slowly changing across Africa, thanks in large parts to the work of activists and international organisations, ending period poverty requires increased collaborative efforts from everyone.

South Africa has removed the Value Added Tax (VAT) on sanitary products to make them more accessible across more income segments. And we advocate for more African countries to follow suit. However, more work still needs to be done in ensuring menstruators don’t have to face monthly obstacles just for being female. And a good place to start would be to assess the needs within the menstrual health space.

African governments need to prioritise comprehensive sexual education, ensuring adequate sanitation, and creating a period leave policy within workspaces. It will also be crucial to challenge the schooling system and evaluate the content children are learning with regards to puberty, sex, and menstrual education.

Schools need to start addressing the topic of menstrual periods in all their aspects for both girls and boys and encourage open discussion and a safe environment for students. Talking openly about periods and ending the taboos that surround them will help equip menstruators with the products and information they need to navigate periods effectively without shame or embarrassment.

Of course, these conversations might be tricky at first, but the degree of the scare, worry and embarrassment that early period positive education would save young girls about to start or starting to experience their periods is both immense and worthy of the required effort.

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