Making menstruation a fact of life


Queen ‘Masenate wants every girl-child to access sanitary towels by 2030


MASERU – A large number of girls and women around the country struggle to manage their menstruation in a dignified way. Hailed as Lesotho’s Champion for Vulnerable Children, Queen ’Masenate Mohato Seeiso, this week continued her annual crusade to provide hygiene packs to vulnerable girls. In commemoration of Menstrual Hygiene Day, Queen ’Masenate handed out 400 hygiene packs to vulnerable girls at St Phillips High School in Kota, Leribe.

This year’s tribute was themed ‘Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030.’ The packs, supplied in partnership with World Vision Lesotho, comprised sanitary pads, soap, bath towels, a tooth brush and paste. Menstrual hygiene, it was noted, is vital to the empowerment and well-being of women and girls worldwide, in that it is about more than just access to sanitary pads and appropriate toilets – though those are important.

It is also about ensuring women and girls live in an environment that values and supports their ability to manage their menstruation with dignity. These girls not only lack access to menstrual health products, correct knowledge about menstruation and support and understanding from their communities but also have limited access to suitable and safe facilities for changing and disposing of sanitary materials during their periods.

This means that for many girls and women menstruation becomes a life-restricting monthly event that limits their ability to attend school or work. This is the case for girls in Lesotho. Sharing her thoughts with the teenage girls at the meeting, the Queen said she wanted to show the girl-child that it is natural and okay to have their menstruation; that this shows that they are healthy.

“I want a girl-child to feel love instead of torture when it is their menstruation time. That is why by 2030 I want every girl-child to access sanitary towels and hygiene easily as the Champion of Menstrual Health and Hygiene in Lesotho,” she said. Speaking at the same event World Vision-Lesotho national director, James Chifwelo, said helping a girl-child is one of the organisation’s mandates, and “we want to make it everybody’s responsibility to see to it that all girls are protected and taken care of.”

“We are going to visit schools countrywide and help with hygiene products and knowledge on how to take care of themselves during their menstruation period.”

On behalf of UNICEF Bernard Keraite highlighted that the UN agency continues to work with the Lesotho government and other stakeholders to increase access to accurate, timely, age-appropriate information on menstruation; effective, safe and affordable menstrual materials, including sanitary pads as well as providing supportive facilities and services – including water, sanitation, and hygiene services, for washing the body and hands, changing menstrual materials, and cleaning or disposing of used materials.

“We continue creating positive and respectful living and learning environments for our girls and young women – free from stigma and psychological distress,” he added. Commending visible steps in Lesotho towards protection and care for vulnerable girls the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) has called upon African governments to provide access to housing, water and sanitation to ensure menstrual hygiene. ARASA was founded in 2002 as a regional partnership of civil society organisations working in 18 countries in Southern and East Africa.

ARASA works to promote respect for and the protection of the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity for all in order to reduce inequality, especially gender inequality by promoting health, dignity and wellbeing in Southern and East Africa. “World Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 was a day to reflect on the current status of menstrual hygiene, reproductive health rights and bodily autonomy and integrity of women in Africa.

“Even though much progress has been made to provide women and girls affordable hygiene products, girls still miss school when they are on their periods, and menstrual health is still a taboo topic,” ARASA said. The AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) is working towards the existence of a legal, policy and social environment in Southern and East Africa (18 countries) in which people living with HIV and TB and key populations most affected have access to acceptable, affordable and quality sexual and reproductive health (SRH), HIV and TB prevention, treatment and care services including access to menstrual hygiene.

ARASA recognizes that all the above-mentioned interventions are less effective if we cannot ensure access to adequate housing, water and sanitation to the majority of young girls across Africa. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that in Kenya over 65 percent of all women cannot afford sanitary products.

A study done in Namibia by Sister Namibia in 2016 suggests that girls in rural areas miss up to 30 days of school a year because they cannot buy sanitary towels and many of them substitute sanitary towels with bits of cloth, or even leaves and newspaper.

It is, therefore, reassuring that governments in Lesotho, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa have committed to providing free sanitary products for school-going girls; and the Namibian government has recently eliminated the “tampon tax” on period products.

However, ARASA says these inroads are minute when compared to the bigger picture of access to sexual and reproductive health rights in Africa. As Kose Makoa, Member of Parliament (MP) in Lesotho said to the local media earlier this year: “Parents are too ashamed to speak to their daughters about their menstrual cycle. So, these girls miss school and remain ashamed of their menstrual cycles.”

Menstruation is popularly associated with misconceptions and taboo practices compounded by religious beliefs, stigma and discrimination. The taboo is so internalized that even female politicians struggle to talk about menstruation in public. In 2016, when a motion was tabled in the Namibian parliament to discuss the provision of free sanitary products to school girls, it was a female MP who shied away from the debate with the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Loide Kasingo, saying “I am too embarrassed to discuss menstruation in parliament.”

Although this taboo is rooted in patriarchy, it can be addressed through education and creating awareness around one of the most natural human phenomena. Awareness without advocacy and action will not solve the problem of poverty and access to water and sanitation.

A 2018 UN report suggests that over a billion people, that’s 56.2 percent of the African population, live in informal settlements, most having little or no access to running water or waste disposal, not to mention private toilets. Understandably, this causes immense challenges for menstruating women and girls.

A 2021 news report quoted Cyprian Magagula, an environmental inspector for the eSwatini Environmental Authority as saying that due to an absence of dustbins, many women keep their used pads with them, under their beds or try to burn them.

Therefore, along with its partners across Africa, ARASA recognises the need to create open dialogue about menstruation in Africa to address taboo. The alliance empowers civil society organisations to host these conversations and to raise awareness about SRHR and bodily autonomy and integrity.

However, ARASA recognises that even if we can empower girls to speak freely about menstruation and keep them in school by giving them access to sanitary products and safe and private ways of disposing used products, we cannot ensure menstrual hygiene for all.

ARASA, therefore, calls upon African governments to accelerate their efforts in alleviating poverty and providing access to water, housing and sanitation and herewith providing access to SRHR to the girls and women who will one day be the mothers to the future leaders of Africa.

Globally, at least 500 million women and girls lack proper access to menstrual hygiene facilities and more than one-third of schools lack single-sex toilets. For adolescent girls, the presence of a safe water supply and clean, functioning, private toilet facilities for managing their menstruation can be the difference between dropping out and getting an education.

Additionally, lack of proper menstrual hygiene products increases the risk of reproductive and urinary tract infections.

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