Bloody Shameful Droplets: A tale of Menstruation in Rural Cameroon

menstrual cups

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.

menstruation

sanitary pad, tampons and menstrual cup

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.

Mrs.Veronica Kette teaching young girls about their anatomy and how to use sanitary towels in Bamenda (Cameroon)

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

Women in Tatum displaying menstrual cups offered by AWEDP-Forum USA thanks its partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Women in Tatum displaying menstrual cups offered by AWEDP-Forum USA thanks to its partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

reproductive health.

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.

About the Author

Vandoline NKWAIN
Vandoline Nkwain is a journalist and cross-cultural communications professional. Having a strong academic and professional background, she aims at using The Afro-Report to trigger positive change in Africa. Experience tells that stories told by real people empower more than blind mass accounts of events. Therefore, using testimonies as a base, Vandoline recounts real people's struggles and success stories to enable others rise above their confines. She does not only tell the news, but mobilises you to act upon it to make a difference. 'We are the future' is her watchword.

32 Comments on "Bloody Shameful Droplets: A tale of Menstruation in Rural Cameroon"

  1. Ngepu Kiawi | 2016-05-07 at 6:58 am | Reply

    Great post and an excellent eye opener. Thank you for bringing in more light into this subject matter. I pray it goes a long way to stop ignorance and promote awareness.

    • Thank you more for reading this article @Ngepu. My hope is for every woman to be given a chance live a stress-free menstrual life. i hope this article goes a long way to help in that direction.

  2. EKANEY METUGE | 2016-05-30 at 12:04 pm | Reply

    Waoh,that is a good one. The tree planted by the riverside has started yielding good fruits. It will not dry up. Thanks for the eye opener. Let the issue not be left only to women, but that it should go beyond gender

    • Thank you so much Sir, I truly appreciate your dropping-by. Please do subscribe to be an integral part of my adventure. You are my number one mentor, so I think you should never be left out of anything I write. You have to be the first to pull my ears anytime I err.

  3. Great write up Vandy. I pray Cameroon follows the foot-steps of Kenya to sort this issue. The cups seem to be a better choice to be used in the rural areas as it is reusable.

  4. Thank you so much Queen. I truly appreciate your feedback. Please do subscribe to be an integral part of this adventure.

  5. Franklin N. Mboligong | 2016-05-30 at 7:44 pm | Reply

    Well written. This is a good example of some of the important aspects of life that some Cameroonian parents fail to teach their children due to certain customs and traditions. Another aspect of menstruation is being able to monitor one’s cycle in order not to be embarrassed by the menstrual flow. Being able to monitor this also helps a great deal when it comes to family planning.

    • Thank you so much Dr. You attacked this subject at the exact angle from which I expected you to. Thanks for adding the need to be able to monitor one’s menstrual circle to the debate. I should be able to work on that subsequently. Please do subscribe to the Afro-Report to get more stories like these (if you have not done so yet). Your visit is highly appreciated.

  6. Well researched wrtite up. Its an important bold steo towards the empowerment of rural women not only in Cameroon but Africa at large. Keep up the good work!

  7. Delphine Fultang | 2016-05-30 at 10:00 pm | Reply

    Waoh great work here dear. Kudos

  8. Hycenth Tim Ndah | 2016-05-31 at 5:50 pm | Reply

    Wow!!, Now I see the real thing coming. Thanks a lot Van for this inspiring piece!. This to me is a real positive intervention. Apart from ignorance, poverty etc…like already mentioned above, this issue needs to cross the gender bridges. Building healthy relationships with your daughters at teenage ages – just at the verge of experiencing this “natural thing” for the first time can creat an enabling environment for an open and frank learning diologue on best options of handling such. Sometimes, the greatest problem with our African context is that, there is a big “exchange gap” between the teenagers and “adults” (parents) – hence these kids suffer a lot in silence for fear of speaking out. It should be the responbility of every parent to balance the relationship with his/her children to give room for an open exchange and sharing geared towards learning!

    Nevertheless, much awareness on this topic is necessary! The emancipation of the woman should not end at fighting equality with men, but should go deep to learning the what? and the how? to manage womanhood for a better acceptance and appreciation of the beauty that lies therein!.

    • You got it all Bo Glen and thanks for sharing. Everyone, including gender equality activists, overlook this very vital aspect of women’s emancipation. I hope many more people read about this and get to know how small actions can hurt a woman’s self esteem and dreams. I truly appreciate your interest in this project grin emoticon. Thanks again!

  9. Gladys Ful | 2016-05-31 at 7:28 pm | Reply

    Thanks a lot for this telltale piece, Van. You, as well as those commenting, have put it nicely; we need to “bridge the gap between parents and girl-children, specifically” to facilitate communication and freedom to talk and share ideas and concerns like menstruation issues, for example; and it needs to be dimystified for both genders to actively contribute to women’s advancement, improved self-esteem, etc. Kudos dear! Keep it up.

  10. Kiawi Sarah | 2016-06-05 at 7:54 am | Reply

    Thanks Van. Good I finally succeeded to go through this article. My own experience was joyful because my brother and wife educated me on it before sending me off to school with sanitary pads. And behold just two weeks in school I had the first flow at 14. But contrarily, my own daughter was embarrashed with a flow at 11. What we should know this time is that the physiology our “andriod”daughters now has greatly evolved. We should start menstrual education as early as even 8 and 9.

    • Thank you so much Na Samse. I think that is great advice. Early education could also be of great help since know one (but Nature/God) has control over when it actually happens. Thanks for this input and please do come again. Remember to subscribe for more.

  11. I appreciate the fluency and fact-based approach Ms. Vandoline uses.
    Very educational

    • Thanks Curtis. And I appreciate your presence and eloquence on this forum. Your comments and useful opinions keep this forum going! Please do come back more often!

  12. What a great post!
    I pray and crave that let sexual and reproductive health education should fast become part and parcel of our schools’ curricula in order to safe most of our children and kid sisters from potential embarrassments; while recommending most of our parents particularly the mothers to go beyond primitive traditional frights to constantly talk menstrual issues to their children, especially to the girls the moment they are fast attaining the adolescent ages.

  13. Well researched and very educative Vandy! Courage dear! I believe one day schools in Cameroon will adopt hot issues like these, to better educate our children.

    • Thanks for coming around Bibi. I truly do appreciate. we owe this kind of sensitization to our schools. hopefully, the future would be brighter for young girls like you say.

  14. Great piece! It’s insightful.

  15. Relindis Kiawi | 2016-07-02 at 12:00 am | Reply

    Great idea to create an educative blog like this Vandy. I see by the end of the day, more awareness will be gained not only on women and menstruation but also on public/personal hygiene which makes for a healthy generation. In most of your write ups the need for being alive and healthy is primordial. Thanks for this theme. In fact I am beyond impressed with the significant take off of your site! Have an amazing race as we will all be there to support you, just remember it takes sweat and blood to dig the gold. Gods guidance and foresight.

    • Thank you so much mom. I am very glad that you captured the idea exactly how I planned it. Your support is priceless and I thank God for you. Together, we can make a little contribution towards improving the lives of people back home in Africa. Thank you so much for your visit and please do come again as often as you can. Also do bring friends along, I would always be here to play host.

  16. Van, this article is so well written. Congratulations

    • Thank you so much Mama. This all happened thanks to you and the good work you are doing back home. Please do keep up the good work. Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog for subsequent articles like these.

      • Nini Thank you so much. this article is so amazing. Awedp-forum-USA is doing a lot in rural Cameroon as pertains to girls, health and taboos. we need concerned individuals like you to expose our work.

  17. Eliette Grâce LOWE | 2016-09-06 at 6:05 pm | Reply

    Very interesting Topic. I think my experience traumatises till today. I was always “sick” during this period. Extremely abundant flow, stomach and knee pains, subsequent anemia not forgetting the shamefull stains!!! I encourage all those working on this aspect and other sensitive matters. I am happy my preganancies make me avoid that today (smile). Thanks Vandy.

    • Interesting one there Lapa! Thanks, we all have these crazy menstruation-related stories. Especially those of us who were raised in motherland. Our duty now as grown-ups is to prevent younger girls from dealing with the same problems we faced decades ago. Please do come around again!

  18. It’s really a great and helpful piece of information. I am happy that you simply shared this helpful information with us.
    Please keep us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

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