These Students Are Rejecting Period Stigma in Rural West Africa
Girls are often denied basic human rights when they get their periods.
Natalie Petrulla is a Food Security volunteer who has spent the past eight months in rural Benin, West Africa. While completing her work in food security, she noticed problems with water and sanitation within schools, especially for girls. Menstrual hygiene is something that young girls struggle with every day, whether that be the lack of proper facilities to manage their periods or the myths that surround menstruation that prevent girls from doing daily activities like going to school. This Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), Natalie organized a group of 50 girls ages 10 to 15 to tackle the myths that surround menstrual hygiene.
Menstrual hygiene is often seen as a taboo subject. In Benin, like most countries around the world, menstruation is rarely easily talked about — both in schools and at home.
During my time living in Benin, I noticed the lack of facilities at local schools for managing periods, and heard many myths surrounding menstruation in terms of what women and girls can and cannot do.
This Menstrual Hygiene Day, I brought together 50 girls from ages 10 to 15 to have an open conversation about menstruation and managing their periods, in order to tackle some of these myths and empower girls in the process.
I started the day teaching the girls about menstruation and puberty. In Benin, formal sexual education begins later in school, when most girls are about 16 or older. Since all girls at this level already have their periods, girls rely on learning about menstruation from their mothers at home. Unfortunately, many times these conversations never happen and even when they do happen, it is often too late.
Not surprisingly, when I asked the 50 girls participating in the workshop, more than one-third admitted that they didn't know what their period was when they first got it. Some girls shared stories explaining that they'd thought they were sick or dying, which is an incredibly traumatic experience for young girls. Many others simply sat there, uncomfortable and silent.
Natalie Petrulla / Girl sharing her experience with menstruation
Throughout the day, we did a series of activities, such as sharing personal experiences and discussing some of the myths that surround menstruation. Some common myths include that girls and women are unclean during their periods and must avoid their families, they cannot eat certain foods during their period (i.e., they can only eat rice), they cannot exercise and go to school, and they are ready to be married.
All the girls in the class were shocked when I explained that these myths were untrue. They all believed that they should remain separate from their families during their periods, avoid certain foods like vegetables or anything with sugar, and abstain from exercise.
That being said, many of the girls strongly opposed the cultural idea that a girl is ready to get married once she gets her period.
Far too often, however, girls are victimized by this widespread cultural practice. In the case of marriage, a male figure, usually the father, is the one who decides if a girl should be married at the start of her period. The girl does not always feel she can say no, and even if she does, it doesn't necessarily prevent the marriage from happening.
In response to this, I explained to the girls that only they have the power to decide whether to get married; it is not something that should be decided for them. They can say no.
All the girls also felt very strongly about staying in school during their periods, but they recognized that this is not the case for everyone. It is not typically spoken about, but the girls said that they do notice if one of their classmates misses school for about a week every month.
Although these girls do go to school while they have their period, they refuse to manage it at school. There are no private latrines for girls available, so they feel embarrassed, afraid, and uncomfortable managing their periods at school. Instead, these girls will ask their teacher if they can go home to change. This is especially problematic, because some girls live as far as 30 to 45 minutes away, which causes them to miss large portions of the school day during menstruation. This problem is so pervasive that the girls all agreed it is taboo to even bring any menstrual hygiene product with them to school.
The idea that menstruation is private and meant to be managed only at home stems from the taboos surrounding menstruation. But it is also due to the lack of private facilities at schools and a lack of proper menstrual hygiene products.
Not a single girl in the class knew what a menstrual pad was. Each girl said she simply used bunched-up tissu (a West African fabric) or cotton in her underwear to manage her period. This often causes leaking, and because of a lack of proper hygiene, it also causes infections, which many of the girls said they experience during menstruation.
So, as our final activity, I showed the girls how to make reusable menstrual pads. They cost only 200CFA (about 35 cents) and are easy to use and to make. After showing the step-by-step process, the girls all received a reusable pad that I made at home with the same instructions.
Now that these girls had an easier way to manage their periods, they were more open to the idea of managing their periods at school instead of going all the way home and missing class simply to change.
Natalia Petrulla / Girls holding up new menstrual pads after learning how to make them
These Menstrual Hygiene Day activities started the conversation about menstruation, but it is only the beginning of tackling these menstrual hygiene myths in my village in Benin. Over the next year, I will continue to work with girls of all ages, and empower them to not be ashamed of their period.