When menstrual hygiene is still a taboo subject

Tuesday January 30 2018


By By Elizabeth Tungaraza @TheCitizenTz etungaraza@tz.nationmedia.com

The 2017 Human Right Watch report titled “I Had a Dream to Finish School: Barriers to Secondary Education in Tanzania”, asserts that in order to ensure menstruation is not becoming a barrier for girls’ education, it requires more than infrastructural investment or even provision of hygiene products. “Girls need access to adequate information about the process of menstruation and options for good menstrual hygiene management,” the report says.

Mbonimana Gabriel, an 18-year-old Form Four student at Bogwe Secondary School in Kigoma said lack of proper knowledge among girl students on how to handle themselves during their menstruation period is a major challenge.

“Most girl students prefer to stay home during menstruation period because we don’t know how to handle ourselves properly, to manage our menstrual flow with dignity, in safe and hygienic ways,” she said.

“That is why we do not attend classes and opt to stay at home. We often use improper materials to manage menstrual flow. Lack of sanitary towels by itself is a cause of stress as we stay worried of stains and of embarrassing ourselves in front of our peers,” she added.

The 2017 report by Human Rights Watch indicates that most students interviewed use dirty and congested pit latrines in school and such toilet facilities do not have space for girls’ sanitary needs.

Even the joint report by SNV World, UNICEF, and WaterAid, entitled: “School WASH in Tanzania, Improving WASH in Schools: Improving the Quality of Education” confirms that toilet facilities in many secondary schools in the country do not meet basic standards.

According to the 2012 “Menstrual Hygiene Matters: A resource for improving menstrual hygiene around the world”, Good menstrual hygiene management requires among other things adequate access to water, accessible, private, and hygienic sanitation facilities so that girls can dispose of or change sanitary protection materials. It is very difficult to find such an environment in most schools in the country.

In the 2015 TAWASANET Menstruation Health Management study report, it was established that majority of girl students, 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 1 – 3 days, with the exception of 1.6 per cent who missed the entire week,” the report says.

Insufficient supply

On accessing menstrual hygiene materials, the report shows that “majority, some 49.5 per cent were provided with pads, though 61.4 per cent were not satisfied with facilities and support provided since they contribute money for pads and pads are not sufficient.”

“In most cases these pads have been contributed by students themselves, and they are not provided to all schoolgirls,” says the report. It also shows that “majority of girls, 53.9 per cent use between 4-8 pads per cycle, while 33.9 per cent use over 8 pads.”

“Alternatively, some opted to stay at home, or carry local materials. Majority of girls, 84.8 per cent bought the industrial made menstrual materials, while for those who were not buying explained the reasons being lack of money, obtained support from their mothers or organizations, or some experienced negative effects and were discouraged to continue using pads,” the report says.

On the other hand, Mbonimana said wrong myth among rural school girls that sanitary towels can cause cervical cancer could be the reason why most girl students in the rural prefer to use improper materials such as pieces of clothes. “Most of us in rural areas lack knowledge on sanitary towels both on their usage and importance in menstrual hygiene,” she noted.

Agnes Mhehe, a Form Two student at Kinkati Secondary School in Kasulu District, shares similar views with Mbonimana. For her part, such self-confidence skills and menstrual hygiene knowledge are very helpful to them. However, she is of the opinion that parents too should be educated on the importance of menstrual hygiene and its contribution in maintaining women dignity and reproductive health wellbeing.

In most African settings, menstruation is often viewed as a taboo and sometimes associated with negative cultural attitudes. “Although it is a normal biological condition for a woman, it is viewed as a shame for the family to know that their daughter is in her menstruation period,” said Agnes, adding that such discussion within the family are often seen as taboo.

For her part, Ms Ritha Pamila, the academic teacher at Bogwe Secondary School blamed parents for not being willing to educate their daughters on the importance of menstrual hygiene. “Most parents still practice such outdated cultural norms that discussing about menstruation is a taboo,” she said.

She added that parents should also help teachers in provision of menstrual hygiene knowledge to their daughters.

“If parents are close to their daughters they will be open to them and ask for help in case they have any menstruation problem,” she added.

Gabriel Mpongo, the chairman of Soko Jipya Street at Mulubona Ward in Kasulu District, confirms what Mbonimana, Agnes and Ritha assert. For his part, it is a shame for a husband to discuss menstrual issues with his wife and daughters.

“I cannot discuss such a topic with my wife or daughters. It is the role of a mother to talk to her daughter about it. How can I discuss such a thing?

Where should I start? I don’t even know how their mother will start such a discussion with me. It is a shame,” he said.

Mpongo’s wife, Sophia Kindazi, supported her husband’s views. For her part, girls should sort out their menstruation issues with their mothers without involving their fathers.

“It is a shame for a daughter to let her father know that she is in menstruation period. Even at the time when the mother is not around, she should better think of what to do than asking her father for some money to buy sanitary pads,” said Sophia.

How Mpongo and his wife see menstruation issues represent a broad view of a large section of communities.

It is in such a view that in 2010, Unicef Tanzania saw the importance of initiating and implementing Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) through a local organisation TWESA in collaboration with Dr Marni Sommer of Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health.

However, despite developing a guidance booklet for girls on getting Growth and Changes in order to help girl students cope with puberty, there are still many challenges ahead. However, according to reports, a myriad of limitations on what can be put into practice still remain as parents are not willing to share knowledge on menstrual hygiene with their daughters.

A section of girls in Kasulu District shares considerably good knowledge on menstrual hygiene, something which shows that there is at least an increased awareness among school girls.

Despite efforts by government and other stakeholders to ensure that menstruation period do not hinder girls from their daily personal undertakings; it is discouraging to note that there are still parents in rural communities who are not ready to abandon some outdated cultural myths about female period.

Parents, especially in rural setting, should be made to understand that menstrual hygiene is fundamental to the dignity and wellbeing of women and girls and an important part of reproductive health knowledge, which every teenage girl has a right to when reaching puberty.