By Iwunze Jonathan
Dookwase must often make the hard choice between getting food for daily sustenance or hygienic sanitary pads for menstrual purposes.
Her situation is pitiful as she must favour food over the ‘luxury’ of sanitary pads. Thus, she resorts to alternatives that are neither hygienic nor safe.
Growing up, she had no knowledge of menstruation neither was she educated on how to manage the process effectively.
Looking worn from the sad chore of her existence, she recounted tearfully, the bitterness and woes that ‘the curse of menstruation’ had brought upon her.
She said, “I was born in a rural village to parents who were peasant farmers. We barely had enough to eat on most days, while starving when no food was available was nothing new to us. We seemed to make peace with our condition. Hoping for better times was simply a far dream.”
At a young age, she was sent to live with a distant relative far away from home in another rural community. When puberty set upon her, she wasn’t ready for the trauma of her first menstrual experience.
She had no idea what it was or how best to manage the blood flow. She said, “In a rather desperate attempt at managing my menstrual cycle, I employed a series of hit and miss attempts which were neither safe nor hygienic. Sometimes, I used a rag for prolonged periods of time.”
This resulted in a condition that caused her private part to give out an almost unbearable stench during her monthly flows. This continued until she got married.
Few years into her marriage, her husband decided to end the relationship and marry another wife because he simply could not bear living with a woman that lacked the ability to take care of herself.
She said, “I was devastated. I ruined my marriage due to my ignorance. I wish I knew what I now know,” she said.
Stories of these kinds come as no surprise in a world where ignorance and poverty reign supreme.
Unfortunately, Dookwase’ story is by no means unique as it reflects the silent and sad living conditions and experiences of women living in rural communities and impoverished parts of the globe.
In recent times, however, certain concerned individuals and NGOs have made efforts to reach rural communities with sensitisation campaigns on Menstrual Health and Hygiene Management (MHM), with a view to flattening the curve and making sure that no one is left behind.
Bayalele, a rural community in Obanliku LGA of Cross River State Nigeria, benefited from one of such campaigns facilitated by United Purpose under the aegis of the RUSHPIN programme.
The activities were focused on the three prongs of MHM namely, Breaking the silence, safe and hygienic management of menstruation materials, and safe disposal of menstrual materials.
An aspect of the campaign that was both unique and productive was the active involvement of the men and boys. The campaign was an eye-opener to the many challenges their wives, and female children must undergo with much hostility because of the taboos associated with a flawed cultural heritage.
According to Plan International, in Uganda, 28% of girls miss school when they are menstruating, while in the Solomon Islands, 63% of women cannot afford sanitary pads. This is best known as “Period Poverty,” and it equally afflicts women and girls across Nigeria’s impoverished suburbs and rural areas.
The bleak scope of the story widens further when one considers that a good number of Nigerians live below the poverty line, with rural dwellers at an all-time disadvantaged position.
A 2019 National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report shows that over 82.9 million Nigerians are considered poor by national standards. In other words, on average four out of 10 individuals in Nigeria earn and live below N137,430 per year. That would translate to N376 per day.
The poverty headcount rate in rural areas currently stands at 52.1% against 17.4% in urban areas.
Like Dookwase, Hope Urimla, 13, was unprepared for her first menstrual experience. The Junior High School (JSS) student wasn’t equipped with crucial information on menstruation hence she experienced a great scare.
She said, “Thankfully, my mother was on hand to help me regain sanity, and with the help of some cloth materials, she helped me to pad up.”
However, there remained yet another major challenge; Hope attended a school that had inadequate toilet facilities. But the toilets were unkempt and had broken doors.
“I missed school most days during my flow because of the condition of the toilets and a lack of privacy about where to change,” Hope said.
Using those facilities during menstruation was no option as the health hazards were enormous. Without realising it, Hope had unwittingly become a part of the oft-cited statistics of the girl-child affected by period poverty.
Against the backdrop of cases like Urimla’s, the MHM programme highlighted the benefits of reusable pads which are very affordable and can be hand-made. The scheme also taught beneficiaries how to build MHM-friendly toilets, emphasising how such facilities are crucial to menstrual health.
Dennis Ikwen, a tailor, who participated in the programme enthused that he had attained beneficial enlightenment by the training. Like most other men in the community, the 35-year-old father of three had grown in an area riddled by myths and taboos about menstruation, thus the community underplayed the needs of menstruating women. By the time he married, Ikwen wasn’t equipped to support his wife through her menstrual cycle.
But when he joined the MHM programme, he learned to put his tailoring skills to good use, making sanitary pads for women.
“At first, it was not easy to cope with the negativity and backlash,” he said, adding that “because the local mentality of many people was that menstruation was strictly a ‘woman thing.’ Therefore, making pads for women by a man was both unheard of and a cause for laughter.”
Undeterred, however, Ikwen sought to change the narrative by breaking the barrier of gender inequality in his community.
He sourced local materials and constructed an MHM-friendly toilet for his wife. That act impelled the rest of the community to follow his steps and everyone started constructing or upgrading their toilets to an MHM-friendly standard.
Presently, Ikwen makes pads at a subsidised rate for the women and girls in the community, while training other men and women to make pads.
He said: “Tradition is gradually being broken, and the era of ignorance on matters of menstruation belongs to the past. We are now enlightened.”
Iwunze, a WASH, Solutions and Data PhotoJournalist, wrote in from Boki, Cross River State.