To many, menstruation might just be menstruation, a normal phenomenon that introduces a young woman to adolescence, yet to others it is much more. Not only is mentioning its name a taboo, but the mere fact of experiencing it too. Read on to know how women in some parts of the world get socially ostracized, just, for being women.
‘I consider the day I first experienced it one of the worst days of my life’, Josephine Tabufor recounts. ‘That was the
first time I learnt about the existence of the thing called menses. It totally took me by storm’ she said with a wry smile.
Many years have passed since Josephine lived her first menstrual flow but scars of the stress and humiliation that accompanied it remain fresh. The woman, now in her early fifties, recalls rushing to tell her mother that she had probably sustained a ‘painless injury’, just to be met with news of its perpetuity. She was just thirteen when it happened. Her mother, she says, quickly shredded an old loincloth and handed it to her for use during subsequent flows. She was to wash the cloths after every flow and air dry them for reuse. For want of means, even toilet paper was a luxury.
The problems she faced from the use of unhygienic methods like shredded cloths were manifold. Josephine not only walked around with blood stains, but also dropped the ‘sanitary cloth’ all around their home. As expected, any of these were met with ridicule and disdain. Her adolescence could never have been harder.
She vividly recalls being exempted from farm work and cooking anytime she was on a period. The then tradition in Bafut-Mezam, a locality in the North West of Cameroon, where she was born exempted women from shaking hands with men, and they were not allowed to participate in any other activity with them during menstruation. In the absence of the shredded cloth, women were expected to seat on special stools made out of banana tree stalks. The stools served both as collectors for the monthly discharge and as a signal that the woman in question was in an ‘unclean’ state.
Ajara Ali, a Muslim woman in the early thirties, had a similar story to tell. Now grown up and responsible, she considers ignorance to have been the main reason why she suffered in the early days of her monthly period. Growing up, she had never heard anyone talk about menstruation until it was her turn. She was quickly informed about the need to abstain from Muslim’s customary five daily prayers anytime she was menstruating. This, she says, was in a bid to uphold Islam as a religion based on ‘hygiene and sanitation’.
Young Ajara learnt most of what she now knows about menstruation from schoolmates, many of whom had different backgrounds and traditions. Sexual education was somewhat of a taboo in her home, like many others. The only thing many mothers made sure to tell their adolescent daughters was to avoid any contact with men, less they get pregnant.
I also sought to know if adolescent girls in 2016 go through the same problems faced by Josephine in the 70s and Ajara in the 90s. Maimouna’s case offered a comprehensive answer. She is a fifteen-year-old from the Mundang tribe of Cameroon’s Far North region (South West of Chad). Maimouna (whose surname is being withheld for ethical reasons) was given out to marriage on the third day of her first period. She was only thirteen, then. Her parents, whom she says have not acquired any formal education, considered menstruation to be a vital sign of ripeness for marriage. In the home of her 35-year-old husband, she was left alone to figure out ways of dealing with the flow whose existence was also news to her. She talks about often being insulted for being incapable of properly concealing her menstrual flow. ‘It was really tough for me’, she recalls. ‘My husband could barely afford the 600 FCFA I needed to buy sanitary pads. In times when we lacked money, I resorted to using shreds from old clothes and when I had no more clothes to use, mattrasses helped’ (translated from French).
Maimouna, who is currently awaiting her first child, has learnt a lot about the female anatomy and can properly take care of her body, but finances are still a major setback. She is constantly forced to return to the methods she knows are harmful.
She is also gets exempted from the Muslims’ five daily prayers and is not allowed to meet with her husband during this period dubbed ‘unclean’.
Having lived these realities, a US-based Cameroonian philanthropist Veronica Kette, has made it her assignment to liberate young girls in Cameroon and Africa from traditions that mystify menstruation. Through her NGO, Africa Women Education and Development Partnership Forum (AWEDP-Forum), Veronica strives to empower young women through sexual education and partnerships.
Her initiation into adulthood was no different from that of many young girls in rural areas. ‘My mother was a village girl who had been given into marriage long before her first period’, she tells me. ‘Having learnt about and managed her menstruation all alone, she was so lost that she had nothing to teach to me’.
At sixteen, when Veronica started menstruating, she had little knowledge of menstruation management. Fortunately, she made friends with a social worker of Dutch origin who taught her most of what she got to know about managing a period. Nonetheless, she suffered from the inability to discuss the challenges she faced because of the topic’s mystical undertone. Menstruation had to be a secret. Today, her dream is to put an end to the problems of her childhood. No woman should suffer, simply, for being a woman.
Statistics gathered by Veronica’s AWEDP-Forum reveal that menstruation causes girls in rural Cameroon to miss between three and five days of school every month, while female farmers lose the same average number of workdays a month for the same reason. Besides, a 2014 UN Women study on the management of menstruation in Kye-Ossi and Bamoungoum revealed a general lack of knowledge on menstrual hygiene for women both in and out of school. Reasons for these range from the absence of adequate sanitary facilities to poverty and ignorance.
‘In some villages of the North West region, women are not permitted to pound ‘achu’ (a local dish) during menstruation. They are not allowed to cook for their husbands, neither can they sleep on the same bed with him’ Mrs. Kette explained emphasizing the ridiculousness.
Poverty sure plays a great role. UNDP statistics show that about 50% of Cameroon’s population lives below the poverty line of US$1.25 a day, roughly the same amount needed to secure a packet of sanitary towels in the country. While this might be why many women in rural areas resort to unhygienic methods like shredded cloth, toilet paper and mattresses, others simply do it for lack of information.
Mrs. Kette is tackling the problem from both ends. Through AWEDP-Forum and partners, she teaches menstrual care and reproductive health to young girls and women in rural Cameroon. They are both taught the importance of sanitary pads and shown how to use them properly. Besides, the NGO trains retired nurses to serve as community educators on the topic. The hope is to alleviate the negativity that has been associated to menstruation in these areas.
During a March 2016 project, AWEDP-Forum distributed washable sanitary pads to girls in seven communities and seven schools in the North West region. They also distributed 5.000 menstrual cups to small holder farmers in the villages of Bafut, Tatum, Widikum, Bali and Buea, thanks its partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
In a bid to make the use of hygienic methods sustainable, plans are underway for AWEDP to create a center wherein young girls can learn how to produce their own sanitary towels and woman can learn the essentials of sexual and
The problems menstruation poses for young girls and women is not limited to Cameroon. Statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund indicate that one in every 10 African girls stay away from school during menstruation. Some drop out entirely because they lack access to sanitary products. Up to 83% of girls in Burkina Faso and 77% in Niger have no place to change their sanitary menstrual materials at school and similar concerns have been raised in India, Cambodia and Iran.
Although many governments and organizations that cater for women’s rights strive hard to improve other aspects of their lives, menstruation is often overlooked. However, efforts are beginning to be made in the facilitation of the acquisition of sanitary towels and other facilities. Kenya is one of the countries that have taken this aspect a step further. After realizing that only 30% of the country’s population could afford sanitary pads, its government dropped all import taxes on sanitary products, hence reducing their cost by up to 18% in the country.
The tale of Menstruation in rural areas of Africa is often one full of shame, ignorance and powerlessness. It is a tale whose course must be reversed collectively in order to give less-privileged women and girls an equal chance to gracefully and shamelessly manage womanhood.