BY Hellen Nachilongo @musanachi60
Growing up in a modern community, a girl’s every milestone was celebrated including her first menstruation. The norm was to sit down with our parents talking various issues about reproductive and sexual health that included menstrual cycles, hygiene and importantly self-respect and dignity.
And we were raised with the concept that menstruation is just a ‘natural’ healthy sign.
But not all communities in Tanzania celebrate a girl’s first menstrual experience; in fact, they are shamed and are told to keep it a secret. It’s considered a taboo talking about it and women are regarded unholy and unhealthy during their periods.
Rahima Salim*, a student at Kivule Secondary School recalls her first experience as horrible.
She had no idea on what needs to be done and she didn’t know whom to approach with her issue. “When I saw blood, I decided to talk to my mother about it. But she discouraged me to tell anyone for the fear of being bewitched,” Rahima says.
Girl’s health and development
Girls experience a variety of symptoms during menstruation—pain, headaches and fatigue. These symptoms combined with taboos result in them not being able to participate in household, school, or social activities.
This exposes a girl to social exclusion, again, that can have a negative outcome psychologically, physically and behaviorally.
In an article titled ‘when menstrual hygiene is still a taboo’, published in The Citizen provided 2015 TAWASANET (a national network of Civil Society Organisations working in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector) Menstruation Health Management study report.
It was established that majority of girl students in Tanzania, some 97.1 per cent have experienced menstruation.
“Apart from other effects, most of them, some 62 per cent feel physically sick and weak during menstruation while 15.9 per cent miss school due to menstruation and in most cases many miss between 3-5 days, with the exception of 1.6 per cent who missed the entire week,” the report reveals.
Dr Wilson Lugano, a doctor based at the Muhimbili National Hospital explains that the material used for padding while on menstruation matters. According to him quality sanitary pads should be sold at affordable prices to help easy access for low income families.
“Due to economic factors, some of the girls use pad materials that are of poor quality, which is unhealthy. This can cause a varied of issues such as yeast infections.”
In fact, prolonged use of sanitary pads in a day can cause blockage of wetness, which encourage bacterial growth.
This is one of the reasons why some women and girls experience severe allergies and yeast infections. Some women may think it’s normal to have allergies and itchiness, which is a misconception.
A girl’s safe place
Girls like Rahima are webbed by age-old traditions and taboos. In some instances, young girls are laughed at school that makes it difficult for them to attend classes as the aforementioned report reveals.
In a move to create menstrual awareness, TGNP Mtandao has introduced a new platform dubbed “Girls Safe Space” to allow school girls discuss and speak openly about menstrual issues without fear.
For a start, TGNP has selected two primary schools, Mabibo and Makumbusho and three secondary schools that are Kivule, Makumbusho and Mchangani.
The move is to break the silence on issues related to menstruation, get testimonies from girls so that to influence decision makers to implement policy on the importance of safe menstrual. To also increase awareness on safe menstruation, give positive attitude on menstrual cycle and to officially announce menstrual champions.
Most of the time when the children are on their periods, they face challenges due to culture beliefs and norms that they fail to share menstrual problems.
TGNP Mtandao has decided to come up with this platform after discovering that most girls fail to access vital health reproductive and safe menstrual information due to taboos existing in the society.
This course will encourage girls to speak comfortably on menstruation, TGNP Mtandao activism and movement building manager, Grace Kisetu elaborated more;
“Girls’ safe place is a place where school girls would meet to talk about their periods with parents, sisters, friends and teachers without fear.
TGNP Mtandao Executive Director, Lilian Liundi shares a story of a female student who was terribly laughed by her fellow students for being on menstruation and because of shame, she didn’t attend school for more than two weeks.
“The girl was supposed to answer a question in class but when the teacher requested her to stand up to give the answer, she failed to stand. Later she was forced to stand and it was discovered her skirt had stains of blood,” she said.
Lilian Liundi explained that the menstruation cycle should be discussed openly without shame or fear, it is a healthy sign for any girl and this society needs to understand.
A step towards breaking the silence
Today marks the international day of menstrual hygiene with this year’s campaign hashtag #NoMoreLimits that aims at a holistic and cool approach to the concept of menstruation including proper disposal, management and involving men and boys in spreading awareness on ending hesitation around menstruation.
‘Girls Safe Place’ campaign discussion towards commemorating this day brought together teachers, parents, activists and students from the aforementioned selected schools, an initiative by TGNP.
Esther Chaduo, a teacher from Makumbusho secondary school and present during the discussion said that majority of the girls in her school either feel shy or stressed at school during their periods and participate less due to bad culture and norms.
Ms Chaduo said that they have introduced a system to help school’s girls access information on their health by inviting different stakeholders to speak to them.
Evidence suggests that the establishment of women- and or girl only spaces helps to reduce risks and prevent further harm during acute emergency responses. These spaces provide women and girls with a safe entry point for life-saving services and a place to access information.
Safe gathering points also offer them an opportunity to engage with each other, build important connections, solidarity and support with other women and girls, exchange information, and rebuild community networks and support.
Safe spaces can be a key way of building women and girls’ social assets.
According to UNICEF, girls would prefer discussing menstruation with other girls or female teachers at school. However, some schools do not have any female teacher since there is still lack of female teachers in both countries, especially at secondary school level and in hard-to-reach areas.
Moreover, the “majority of the girls are not comfortable to attend class during menstruation. Apart from the associated pain and stomach ache, girls experience shame, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence for fear of mismanagement of the menstruation – the fear of soiling their clothes and of a bad smell associated with not washing properly prevents them from concentrating on their education.
Hence, these spaces support women and girls to recover from violence, form networks and access support, safety and opportunities.
These are often integrated spaces offering a range of services including resources, information, social networks, to essential and discreet clinical care and sexual reproductive health services.
*not her real name