FOR 40-year-old Ajebe Gladys, coping with her monthly menstrual period since she lost one of her limbs about 17 years ago in an accident has been both tiring and burdensome.
The inability to walk on two legs and financial constraints to procure menstrual hygiene kits make menstruation more like punishment for the mother of two.
“I don’t look forward to my menstrual period,” Gladys says of the hardship she undergoes during the monthly routine.
The US Office on Women Health (OWH) describes menstruation as a woman’s monthly bleeding, often called period.”
Menstruation is a natural process, without which human existence would be threatened but it is a nightmare for many women across the world who lack access to basic hygiene and sanitation during their periods.
Although Gladys knows it is a natural process, she says it is also a constant reminder of the many troubles she needs to contend with whenever it comes.
There are basic rules and procedures to follow during menstruation which are difficult for women in Gladys’ condition.
The OWH recommends that menstruating women should try to change the pad before it becomes soaked.
But to use sanitary pads during that period is a luxury that Gladys cannot afford, therefore she uses a piece of rags as an alternative to sanitary pads.
“Due to financial constraints, I rarely use sanitary pads. I fold a piece of clothing sometimes with tissue paper to absorb my menstruation,” she said.
“During this period, I avoid going out to prevent being stained and making a mess of myself.”
Her daily earnings from a little shop she operates according to her are too meagre to cater for her needs and that of her two children.
Therefore, buying sanitary pad takes the lowest place on her scale of preference where feeding, clothing and shelter are paramount.
Before the accident that claimed her leg, she was a showroom attendant on a monthly salary of N7000. Back then, when she walked on her two legs, she says she could afford sanitary pads but has since been financially constrained since she lost her job after the incident.
With obviously outgrown prosthetics, she says accessing toilet facilities in her house or public is often difficult and inconveniencing.
Women, girls still haunted by period poverty
Like Gladys, Amiru Najatu, 20, goes through the same experience every month whenever she is menstruating. Her limbs were paralysed when she was a child due to polio infection. This she says compounds her access to basic menstrual hygiene and sanitary products.
For close to five years that she has been experiencing menstruation, Najatu who lives off almsgiving says she has never used a sanitary pad.
Her physical disability and means of livelihood underscore the level of period of poverty she faces.
“I use the money from begging to buy food and water to clean myself but I cannot buy sanitary pads from the money because what I realise daily is not enough,” Najatu says.
Period poverty, the inability of menstruators to afford proper menstrual hygiene products, has been a nagging issue in Nigeria.
Experts say this usually predisposes menstruating women and girls to unhygienic practices, like using rough newspaper, fabric, or cloth napkins in place of pads.
Period poverty is very serious in our time. Working with vulnerable women and children in several communities has opened my eyes to a lot, says Wanda Adu, Executive Director, Wanda Adu Foundation (WAF). The Foundation takes care of vulnerable women and girls.
Adu said women who are not sure of a meal in a day for their children cannot afford to buy sanitary towels. “There is extreme poverty in Nigeria and so the pad is seen as a luxury in communities.
“They are left with forgone alternatives. Should they buy food or pads? There and then they conclude that food is more important than a pad. Hence they improvise,” she said
With a staggering statistics of 82 million people living below the poverty line of N137,430 in a year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), purchasing menstruation sanitation products becomes a tall order for most women and girls.
Undoubtedly, the impact of poverty is widespread affecting both men and women but its effect on women and girls is disproportionately high.
A report by UNICEF in 2017 said menstruating schoolgirls in Nigeria faced many challenges which affected their ability to manage their menstruation in a dignified and hygienic way.
Availability and adequacy of WASH facilities, adequacy and flow of information on menstrual hygiene management and access to materials for hygienic management of menstruation all impacted girls’ experience of menstruation, UNICEF said.
Danjuma Janet, 18 and a former student of Government Secondary School, Jabi in Abuja recalls when she started menstruating at the age of 16 and she was shocked. She was told by her mother to shrug the shock off, as it is an indication that she is now a woman.
Her mother provided her some sanitary pads but it didn’t last long because of the financial implication. Janet says her parents who run a shop of daily needs experience recession in their business and could not afford to provide her pads.
Janet went to visit a friend when she first experienced her menstruation and was given a rag to clean up.
“I went to visit my friend and I was told that my cloth was stained at the back. Initially I was scared but they offered me a rag to clean up. My mother later gave me a pad to use,” she says of her first experience of menstruation.
Janet resigned to fate ̶ making use of pieces of unused materials or rags each month she menstruates. But this has brought her shame and ridicule, as her friends mock her in school whenever she gets stained.
She said a sanitary pad costs N300 depending on the brand and size. This is difficult for her to get since she is not working and cannot afford it.
“It’s not easy to buy a pad everyday,” she says. “Sometimes I use rag when I cannot afford to buy a pad because it costs between N300 to N400.”
She recalled how she was embarrassed on a day she got stained in school at the age of 16.
“I left school early that day because I felt so embarrassed when my friends called my attention to my stained skirt,” Janet recalls.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The UNICEF in the 2017 report recommended that there should be facilitation of accurate and sufficient information on menstruation hygiene management to disabuse minds of people on the myths and taboos and encourage safe, hygienic and dignified management of menstruation.
Other key recommended actions were the provision of appropriate and adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools; support to access affordable reusable sanitary pads and mobilization of policy and decision-makers to promote open discussion of menstrual hygiene management to reduce stigma.
Recently, Nigeria’s Ministry of Women Affairs flagged off the distribution of one million sanitary pads to women and teenage girls across the country as part of the government’s efforts to address period poverty among women and girls.
“This project is hinged on the fact that girls’ and women’s choices of menstrual hygiene materials are often limited by costs, availability and social norms,” said Paulen Tallen, Minister of Women Affairs at the 2020 Menstrual Hygiene Day observed in Kado village, Abuja on May 28.
“Therefore, providing access to feminine hygiene products will go a long way to solve the problem to a great extent.”
At the event which was organized by the ministry with support from Water Supply Sanitation and Collaborative Council (WSSCC) and other stakeholders, 4000 sanitary pads were distributed to women and girls at the village. Each beneficiary received at least four packs of sanitary towels.
Elizabeth Jeiyol, WSSCC National Coordinator for Nigeria believes poor knowledge and understanding of menstruation may lead to unsafe hygienic practices for women and girls.
Jeiyol says all stakeholders must team up to change the negative social norms surrounding menstruation.
“Poor knowledge and understanding of menstruation may lead to unsafe hygienic practices for women and girls,” she said.
“It is not a gender thing – but a basic human right issue – and together we can empower all women and girls to realize their full potentials everywhere in the world.”
She maintains that effective menstrual hygiene has direct and indirect effects on the overall well-being of women and girls – in the context of education, empowerment and health.
According to her, women and girls face continuous mental, physical and health traumas during their periods – as a result of discriminatory social norms, cultural taboos, supernatural beliefs, gender inequality, and limited access to basic services such as WASH facilities in private and public spaces which leads to ‘Period Poverty’ for women and girls across the world – especially in developing countries like Nigeria.
Chizoma Opara, acting Coordinator of the Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet Campaign says it is important to institutionalise menstrual health and hygiene management at all levels in Nigeria.
This, Opara said can be achieved by putting an end to open defecation in Nigeria through the provision of hygiene facilities for the populace particularly women and girls during their menstrual period.
Wanda Adu says every woman and girl deserves a free sanitary pad every month, saying “teenage girls will not go to school for fear of stigmatization and shaming if they happen to be stained.”
On the occasion of 2019 international women’s day, she says her Foundation while giving out sanitary products to 150 women and girls in several communities in Abuja witnessed struggle by the women and girls to get the products.
What cash transfer can do for menstruating teenage girls and women
If the government acts by its words, there may be a relief for women and teenage girls regarding period poverty.
Poor and menstruating women and girls who cannot afford to purchase menstrual hygiene products when on their menstrual period can heave a sigh of relief, Sadiya Umar Farouq, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development said.
She recently said the Ministry would find a way to incorporate teenage girls and poor women in the country into its Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme to support them in purchasing all the necessary hygiene materials for their monthly menstrual period.
Farouq said her Ministry was ready to collaborate with the Ministry of Women Affairs to support the vulnerable groups especially women and teenage girls, using the CCT scheme.
The CCT scheme is designed to benefit poor and vulnerable households with a monthly stipend of N5000; and beneficiaries are trained and provided financial and technical support to start small businesses.
“We have a programme in the ministry, it is called Conditional Cash Transfer. The programme is specifically for farmers that need this kind of support and it is being given to women heads of families. So that they can take care of themselves and other members of the family including teenage girls in the family,” she said during the 2020 World Menstrual Hygiene Management Day.
“We are going to find ways to tinker with this programme to see that the teenage girls are also incorporated by giving them monthly stipends to support them and so that they are able to earn something that they can use to buy all the necessary hygiene materials that they need during this period of their lives.”
Farouq says she understands that most teenage girls are subjected to all forms of hardships when they menstruate.
“Some of them are not able to go to school or participate fully in society, always at home because of the hardship that they go through on days that they observe their menstrual period,” the Minister said.
Farouq lauded efforts made by the Ministry of Women Affairs led by Dame Pauline Tallen in addressing period poverty.