For many girls across Africa, getting their period means staying home from school, exposure to negative social stigma, and the risk of significant health issues all because they don’t have access to safe sanitary products.
Period poverty is a global issue, which affects mensutrators who don't have access to safe, hygienic period products or who can't manage their periods with dignity — because of stigma, or a lack of menstrual education, or proper hygiene facilities.
And, as highlighted by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), period poverty can have lasting consequences on a menstruator's education and economic opportunities, as well as exacerbating existing vulnerabilities.
While global data on period poverty and its impacts are lacking, one widely cited statistic attributed to UNESCO says 1 in 10 girls in Africa miss school because they don't have access to menstrual products or because there aren't adequate toilets to use at school. Others will drop out of school altogether.
Women and girls across the continent already experience discrimination based on gender across all areas of life, and taking care of their menstrual health and hygiene — a perfectly normal part of life — simply shouldn't be yet another discrimination to be faced.
The good news is that across the continent (and around the world) there are a great many activists and advocates working to raise awareness on period poverty and how it affects women and girls in Africa. Here are just some of these activists and how, in their experience, period poverty is impacting the lives of women and girls across the continent.
1. Period poverty can expose young girls to infections
Ijeoma Nzeagwu, Nigeria
According to Ijeoma Nzeagwu, the founder of Sisi Red, an organisation in Nigeria that educates young girls in rural areas about menstrual hygiene, period poverty has many long- and short-term health effects.
“Period poverty can expose young girls to various infections as their inability to access affordable and safe sanitary products can lead them to using unhealthy alternatives, which puts their health and safety at risk,” Nzeagwu told Global Citizen.
Some women and girls who can’t afford sanitary products use foam and cloth strips, for example, while others use newspapers and rags.
The World Bank reports that poor menstrual hygiene can lead to dangerous health risks like reproductive and urinary tract infections, which can lead to future infertility and birth complications; while not having access to hand-washing facilities can lead to the spread of other infections, like Hepatitis B and thrush.
2. It can lead to a spike in early pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and STDs
Janet Mbugua, Kenya
In Kenya, 65% of women and girls are unable to afford sanitary pads. One study on the social and health implications of this found that two-thirds of pad users received their pads from sexual partners — with around 10% of 15-year-old girls surveyed reporting engaging in sex for money to buy pads, a much higher rate than among older women.
According to Janet Mbugua — the founder of Inua Dada Foundation, an organisation commited to ending period poverty in Africa — "it's undignifying and affects their self esteem and ability to function when they are on their periods and can't get pads."
“So they will have transactional sex for pads and what that comes with is a spike in teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and STDs," she continued. "So all around, it just creates multiple shadow pandemics."
3. In South Africa, adolescent girls miss up to 5 days of school per month due to menstruation.
Candice Chirwa, South Africa
Candice Chirwa is widely known as the Minister of Menstruation because of her work as a menstrual health advocate. The founder of Qrate Africa, an organisation that educates young people about menstrual health, Chirwa is very passionate about removing the stigma surrounding menstruation in order to bring period poverty in South Africa to an end.
In an article written for Global Citizen in 2021 — as part of our In My Own Words series — Chirwa talked about how period poverty affects the education of young girls in South Africa.
“In South Africa, one study found that adolescent girls can miss up to five days of school per month due to menstruation,” she wrote. “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.”
4. Girls are led to believe they and their periods are unclean
Okeri Ngutjinazo, Namibia
In an interview with UNFPA Okeri Ngutjinazo, a Namibian menstrual health advocate, explained that because of a combination of cultural beliefs and period poverty, many young girls in Namibia feel ashamed when they menstruate.
“Historically, when a woman was menstruating, she was deemed to be unclean during her period, and anyone who touched her or any of her objects would also be unclean until the evening. That should not be what young girls think of and they should be comfortable speaking openly about menstrual health,” she explained.
“Having your period does not make you dirty or [a lesser person]; you are beautiful, no matter what," she continued. "You should not feel ashamed or skip a day of school because you can’t afford a pad or tampon.”
You can join Global Citizens around the world in taking action to help combat period poverty and ensure all girls can access the education, health care, and nutrition they need to thrive by supporting our Empower Girls NOW campaign. Get started by taking our period poverty quiz here and head here to see all the actions you can take to empower girls.