The Urgent Need to Break Nigeria’s Menstruation Taboo

26 July 2017

Nerfiti’s story (age 37)

“I grew up in Nigeria until I was 17.  What I do remember is getting embarrassed when my mum told everyone that I got my period.

We were in the Yoruba tribe. There are three major tribes in Nigeria: Yoruba, Ibo, and Hausa. My mom, Silva, is an OBGYN nurse in Nigeria. She says Hausa women don’t usually go out during their period until it’s over. She also mentioned that Muslims usually don’t have women attend mosque, or participate in religious things such as fasting, as they are considered unclean.

Depending on the part of the city or village one is in, my mom says some Yoruba women who have just given birth are not allowed out for 42 days afterwards. They are considered unclean because there is still bleeding postpartum for up to six weeks after birth.”

In Nigeria, 86 million people live in extreme poverty, 57 million people do not have access to clean water, and 130 million (two-thirds of the population) do not have access to adequate sanitation.  These conditions leave many women and girls in Nigeria without the facilities to manage their menstrual hygiene, the consequences of which are a danger to their physical and mental health, and restrict their access to education and participation in society.  Furthermore, the prevailing social taboo surrounding menstruation means the problem is even more difficult to address.

The above definition of Menstrual Hygiene Management, as outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in accordance with the newly established Menstrual Hygiene Day (28th May) outlines the most basic of requirements for managing menstruation hygienically and with dignity.  Unfortunately for millions of Nigerian women and girls, the reality is much more troubling.

The most popular types of sanitary product sold worldwide are disposable tampons and sanitary towels made from combinations of fiber materials, paper pulp or viscous, and a polyethylene film, designed to carefully transport and absorb liquid into the center of the product where the blood is stored in order to prevent leakage.  Such types of sanitary product are available to some women and girls in Nigeria, but at significant financial cost. One report from Connect Nigeria has said ‘sanitary pad costs range from ₦350 to ₦1800, and most women need at least two [packs] for each monthly period. Women with good income still feel the pinch, how about much more economically challenged women?’  What is more, Nigeria is currently experiencing a turbulent financial crisis and the price of sanitary towels in January 2017 increased by almost 100%.

Eva, whose story has been recorded by UNICEF, recalls the day she noticed the price increase:

“Anyone who saw me walking out of the store that night, dazed, would think I just received news of a disaster.  I was particularly devastated by the huge increase in the price of the same pad I bought only [a] few weeks earlier.”  

Eva revealed that for every period she usually uses at least 3 packs of 16 pads, spending approximately ₦1,200 each month.  But with the hike, her expenses for sanitary products have shot up by almost 100%, resulting in her expenditure for exactly the same sanitary products now at around ₦2,100 (approximately £5.11) every month.

For Nigeria’s very poor, the situation is worse still. The organisation AFRIpads has documented that for those ‘unable to afford or access proper menstrual products, many girls and women rely on crude, improvised materials like scraps of old clothing, pieces of foam mattress, toilet paper, leaves, and banana fibers to manage their menstruation – all of which are unhygienic, ineffective, and uncomfortable.  Faced with frequent, embarrassing leaks and a susceptibility to recurrent infections, the impact is that millions of girls and women experience their monthly period as something that prevents them from engaging in daily life – whether this is going to school or work, or carrying out their normal domestic responsibilities.’

One report from a secondary school in Onitsha, southeastern Nigeria, showed 55.7% of of girls using unsanitary menstrual absorbents. As a result, new initiatives are attempting to be introduced to teach women and girls to make washable, reusable sanitary products with the hope that this will begin to address the problem of sanitary waste disposal and to create a new consciousness around menstrual hygiene.

The issue of privacy and dignity during menstruation is another area in which Nigerian women and girls are failed every day. A recent study by UNICEF has shown that in rural Nigeria, menstruation is perceived as ‘dirty and shameful’ with some families maintaining separate living quarters for menstruating women.  Similarly, periods are treated with ‘secrecy and shame’ in schools, where for every 1 toilet there are 600 students, and even then the facilities are not adequate.  Furthermore, according to a recent Water Aid report, there are ‘deeply rooted attitudes and myths surrounding menstruation including the belief that a menstruating woman or girl is cursed and possessed by evil spirits and brings bad luck.’  This inevitably reinforces harmful gender stereotypes about the inferiority of women, and perpetuates the restriction of women in public life.

Taken from a hygiene booklet that WaterAid Nigeria has developed for children, as part of their menstrual hygiene promotion

At present, it is estimated that 1 in 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during menstruation, and many girls eventually drop out altogether as a result.  In Nigeria in particular, over 10 million children, mostly girls, are already out of school and the limited access to adequate menstrual hygiene products and facilities is only going to further increase this number.

Some measures are being taken by the international community, such as UNICEF’s introduction of private bathrooms for girls with hand wash facilities and lockable doors, but this is still not enough.  Women’s physical health and mental health is at risk every month during menstruation as a result of myths, restrictions, and ignorance, and until this can be talked about openly, we will not fully understand the extent of the problem. It is known that the empowerment of girls and women is among the top concerns on the international aid agenda, including access to healthcare and education, but until women and girls are given their dignity, are free from shame, and not at physical risk every during every monthly bleed, this goal cannot be achieved.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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