Menstrual Hygiene: Moving away from taboo

It is break time at a primary school downtown but little Anita cannot leave her seat. Why? Her school uniform has been messed-up and fearful of the stigma, she remains glued to her seat. In some other institution, a secondary school student, Leslie is experiencing cramps caused by her menstrual period.

Many girls experience all of these during their monthly period as an indication of good health. Dr Vanessa Fozao Mbi explains, "Having your monthly period is an indication that your reproductive system and hormones are functioning properly."

Some 30 - 90 % of women and girls worldwide experience pain during menstruation, dysmenorrhea in medical term.

"There are two types, primary dysmenorrhea which is menstrual pain with no pelvic disease and secondary dysmenorrhea which is menstrual pain as a result of an infection or other pelvic disease," Dr Vanessa Fozao Mbi explains.

Menstruation and Cultures

In most African communities, menstruation appears to be a taboo topic.

In Cameroon young girls avoid discussions relating to it consequently they are surprised and even heartbroken in the midst of friends.

The fear of stigma induces the young girls to use unsafe pads, being embarrassed to buy recemmended sanitary towels or get them from an elder.

In Kenya, many girls especially in rural areas stay away from school during this period. A Kenyan activist, Renee Ngamu contends that, part of the reason is the inability to purchase sanitary towels.

Hilda Twongyeirwe, a Ugandan writer states that many taboos surround a woman in her period. "A woman whose blood escapes and stains her outer garments is considered dirty".

She also says the Ugandan tradition holds amongst other things that;

A woman who is on her period and walks through a pumpkin garden will dry up the plants;
A woman on her period should avoid giving a hair cut to another another lady lest the lady looses hair.

Still in Uganda, Josephine Karungi a journalist indicates that from research carried out on colleagues, many still have unclear ideas about menstruation.

Millie Phiri, a communication specialist on her part mentions that in some cultures in Zimbabwe, a woman menstruating should not cut or look at red meat because it would increase her flow of blood.

Social management

In Cameroon, most public toilets provide trash cans in which used sanitary pads are being disposed of.

Rene Ngamu thinks more is still left to be done, "Hotels will readily provide shaving kits, sewing kits, travel toothbrushes, even bath gowns, slippers, and disposal bags. I am yet to find a single hotel that makes provision for a lady in her period. It is alarming!"

And what about the public perceptions?

A young man who prefers anonymity says in his secondary school days, classmates always made fun of girls who got soiled with menstrual blood but as they grew up, they got to understand that such behaviour was very inappropriate.

Mockery from mates in the early years of menstruation, sociologists explain could be avoided if children are schooled on menstruation as early as in the primary school.

Some primary and secondary schools in Cameroon presently target children at the age of puberty to acquaint them with important information.

Many activists want the topic to get into the primary school curricular.

Parents, especially mothers are also called upon to break the silence.

A medical perspective from Dr Vanessa Fozao Mbi

1. It is important to master the menstrual cycle so as to stay prepared.

2. Appropriate sanitary pads and comfortable pants are recommended.

3. Pad change frequency should be 3 - 4 times daily.

As Cameroon commemorated the World Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28th May 2018, it was time for young girls and women to join those worldwide to say #NoMoreLimits in line with this year's Menstrual Hygiene Day campaign.