I'm the 'Minister of Menstruation'. Here’s How I’m Fighting Period Poverty in South Africa.
Activist Candice Chirwa shares why she's so passionate about ending period poverty.
Candice Chirwa is a South Africa-based menstruation activist, speaker, and academic working towards destigmatising menstruation while also lobbying for an end to period poverty in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world.
In South Africa, research has found that up to 30% of girls miss school because of period povertyand being unable to afford menstrual products. The loss of schooling days can result in girls falling behind their male peers as well as missing out on the opportunities that come with completing school.
Tackling period poverty and making sure menstruators can access a full education and career opportunities is beneficial for everyone, because when women are financially empowered, they lift up their families and communities too.
Here, Chirwa explains why she’s branded herself the Minister of Menstruation, how she's working to tackle period poverty in South Africa, and why she's so passionate about her work.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
Candice Chirwa, a menstruation activist from South Africa.
The first time seeing period blood stained on my underwear made me think that I was going to die.
When I had to announce this event to my mother, the conversation I had was filled with fear. I had experienced blood from injury while playing with friends, but I had never encountered seeing blood coming from my vagina.
Being told that I needed to hide my period from everyone caused me great worry. I thought that I was the only person who experienced this, and not telling anyone made me feel ashamed. I couldn’t have envisioned, when I was 10 years old and scared about my first period, that 15 years later, I would be advocating for period education in South Africa.
I am Candice Chirwa, also known as the Minister of Menstruation. I am 25 years old, and I was born and bred in Johannesburg, South Africa. Formally, I am an academic, menstrual activist, author, TEDx Speaker, and founder and director of my NGO, Qrate. I love drinking lots of coffee. I would describe myself as a bubbly, charismatic, outgoing, passionate, and caring feminist. And I believe that women, girls, and vulnerable groups deserve fundamental human rights.
Through this belief and my academic background, I educate young people and society about menstruation. I remember having learned about periods in school only from the biological perspective. The lessons left out important information about our bodies, the use of sanitary products, and dismantling the period taboos.
I realised the need for this when having a conversation with one of the students I mentor in 2018. She had mentioned how there is little to no discussion about periods. This also became important for me while doing my Masters research. And so I created my nonprofit organisation, Qrate, which is focused on enhancing critical thinking in young people on social issues, and hosts and facilitates fun and dynamic menstruation workshops as a way to provide young people with comprehensive menstrual and sexual education.
So far, we’ve engaged with over 300 participants in Gauteng alone, and the responses have been positive and uplifting. Seeing participants leave the workshops openly saying the word “vagina” or “menstruation” without flinching, always leaves a smile with the Qrate team. I acknowledge that menstrual education alone won’t address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties, but it is a good place to begin to eradicate the fear a young person might feel when they have their first period.
Although I am grateful for having a conversation with my mother about the basics of menstrual health, I wish and hope that in the future, the first time a menstruator encounters their period, it is met with celebration and not with fear. That the words, “you’ve transitioned into adulthood” aren’t met with subjective and restrictive myths but rather met with objective and helpful period advice and tips.
Menstruation matters to me because it is still unacceptable to talk openly about menstruation, to make it visible. When we think about how in particular society portrays menstruation, it is usually in the format of horrific PMS jokes or first menstruation horror stories, and this results in socialising young menstruators to expect to hate their periods, even before they have them. It fascinates me how a natural and biological event carries a lot of taboos and myths restricting social behaviors.
How we view our periods is also important in the discussion of the dignity that menstruators are entitled to when it comes to placing menstrual health within the human rights agenda.
We need to understand that when it comes to the access of products, sanitation, and information needed for managing their period, society needs to ask itself whether they’d be able to manage it without those basic necessities. And then think about the menstruators who don’t have access to sanitary products, clean water, safe facilities, and sexual education.
Gender inequality, extreme poverty, and harmful cultural traditions can all make menstruation a difficult time. In South Africa, one study found that adolescent girls can miss up to five days of school per month due to menstruation.This is known as period poverty. When that time of the month arrives, there are a range of economic and social burdens on young girls during their time of transition into adulthood.
Menstruation is conveyed as a matter that is not worthy of public debate due to societal perceptions that associate menstruation with "privacy" and "shame". Understand that the silence we continue by not talking openly about our periods has an impact on people who menstruate who go to school and work.
A friend of mine applauded the menstruation workshops my nonprofit Qrate hosted, and he gave me the title Minister of Menstruation — and I felt the need to go with it. I wasn’t expecting a positive response, but luckily people loved the title. It allows for society to reflect on what our world would be like if we actually had a Minister of Menstruation, who created period positive content and focused on empowering individuals from the burden of the period taboo.
As the years go on, I am happy to see that society is starting to have critical discussions about the period taboo and the impact it has on period poverty. I have had many individuals applauding the menstrual education workshops, and personally, I’ve now have people from different walks of life approach me to ask period questions.
Just in case you forgot: Anything you can do, I can do bleeding! 🗣— Minister of Menstruation 🩸 (@Candice_Chirwa) March 8, 2021
For this International Women’s Day, I #choosetochallenge stigma around periods.
Today I celebrate, thank and honor the many menstruation activists that lead and support us all. 🩸 ✊🏾 pic.twitter.com/cvsTfRi3Wu
It has also been an opportunity to connect and learn from many menstrual activists from around the world and that has been a great opportunity in understanding that period poverty requires a collaborative effort from everyone. I can acknowledge that attitudes are slowly changing thanks to the work of activists and international organisations.
Last year, Scotland became the first country to make period products free and available in schools and for menstruators who can’t afford them. India’s Supreme Court was proud to declare a renouncement of the ban on menstruating women entering holy sites. The announcement stated that the state had the duty to protect and safeguard the rights and freedoms of women and menstruators. Additionally, Zomato in India introduced paid period leave for its employees; while the UK has launched a global fund to eliminate period poverty by the year 2050.
Although South Africa has removed the Value Added Tax (VAT) on sanitary products, there is still more work to be done in ensuring menstruators don’t have to face monthly obstacles. Our government needs to assess the needs within the menstrual health space.
Policy-wise, our government needs to prioritise comprehensive sexual education, ensuring adequate sanitation, and creating a period leave policy within workspaces. It’s important to challenge the schooling system and evaluate the content children are learning with regards to puberty, sex, and menstrual education.
We need to add pressure to ensure that schools address the topic of periods in all its aspects for both girls and boys and encourage open discussion and a safe environment for students. And finally, period poverty isn’t always easy to talk about. Talking openly about periods and ending the taboos that surround them means that we can equip menstruators with products and information that is needed to manage periods effectively without shame or embarrassment.
I’ll admit, the conversation might be tricky at first, but I think back to my 10-year-old self, scared and worried, and I wonder how different my first period would be if our society was just period positive.
If I had the opportunity to speak to my younger self, I would say: “Periods can be a hassle. But there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
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