A gendered approach to tackling menstruation

Today we celebrate the international Menstrual hygiene day under theme making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030.

We celebrate with this theme at a moment when there are still lot’s of myths and shame around menstruation. At a moment when the sociopolitical crisis in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon has increased women’s and girls’ challenges in line with menstruation. These challenges range from from accessibility, affordability, and availability. For girls in most urban areas (such as Buea where I live), the cost has increased from 600 FCFA to 700FCFA.

In war-torn communities in the South West and North West regions of Cameroon, where the crisis has forced families to leave their homes to seek safety and refuge in hideouts (bushes, farms, forests), Vanessa(2021) conducted some research where she found out the following as regards how women and girls manage their periods.

A woman shared that she spends time at the river banks while the moving water washes off her menstruation. She’ll stay there till it’s night then she returns to her shelter. She’ll repeat this till her period is over . Another woman shared that she actually cut a part of her mattress and used it in collecting her menstruation. She will keep washing it when it’s so heavy and wet, then reinsert in her vagina and will keep repeating this process till her period is over.

In the Northwest, another respondent indicated that she makes use of grass used for roofing to collect her menstruation. In some cases, respondents indicated that they use spirogyra and others use unprocessed cotton gotten from plants, and use parasites that grow on cocoa plants. Others still chop off pieces of clothes and use them often to collect their periods. The risks associated with these methods of menstrual hygiene management are grave.

While the theme has an aspect of normalizing menstruation, lots of lectures and messages on menstruation, or menstrual hygiene management has constantly left men and boys at side the entire equation. I strongly advocate for the inclusion of boys and men in such conversations and interventions for a couple of reasons.

For children who lose their mothers during or after birth, or before menarche, and do not have any other female family member to support them, who supports them through this period as they question the changes happening to them. Teens ask questions such as; why do they have tender and painful breasts just during this period? Teens ask questions seeking to know why blood is dripping out of them without a cut. They ask questions such as, who do I talk to in times like this? Since this is a taboo topic in most homes, children or teens often have a hard time communicating their worries at this stage, or even having responses even if they get to ask.

In effect, some tend to use untidy pieces of clothes to catch their menses, while some stay out of school or isolate themselves during this period.

A Muslim teenager in a menstrual hygiene management session once told me “when ever I’m menstruating, I’m not allowed to pray in the mosque because I’m considered unclean at the moment”.
Again, another Christian teenager said ” I learnt that in our culture, women can’t plant crops or touch growing plants when they are menstruating because the crops will either die or not do well”. This is a reality with women of the Dikume Baluwe culture of the Oroko tribe in the Southwest region of Cameroon. During menstruation, they are not allowed to carry luggage on their backs, or cook for elderly men. All these are myths as they have no scientific backing. Though not backed, these myths are numerous, and vary from community to community and have far reaching consequences on women and girls.

How do girls feel comfortable when stained among boys when boys have no idea what menstruation is? How do girls feel okay when rather than having support from boys the Boys rather jeer or laugh at the girls? When will girls and women normalize not wrapping their sanitary pads in numerous plastic bags out of shame? When will parents (especially in rural areas engage honest and open conversations with their children (both boys and girls)?

While in the secondary school (form four) I studied biology. When we got to menstruation, my teacher (male) said it’ll be treated in the next class (form five), and we shouldn’t bother we’ll not be evaluated in the test. In form five our human biology teacher (female) asked us to study this topic as an assignment and that she wasn’t sure we’ll have it in the exams. I came to understand they found it as a taboo topic of conversation with children. But then, information is power, and we were deprived.

The conflict in the both English speaking regions has left some male children as child-headed households. How do they support their female siblings while they have no information on the subject? And how do the men who lost their wives during the war help their female children with no mother in their lives?

While I was in the primary school, female teachers had sessions with older girls on menstruation. Though in the same class, I was never included in these sessions as I was probably considered too young. But then, when children learn about periods early, they prepare better. I learnt about menstruation through informal conversations along rows in the classroom and under trees in school from older girls with nothing from my parents.

In line with the theme of celebration this year, menstruation will not be considered normal for all (age and sex), till we normalize using an inclusive approach that seeks to include men,boys, girls and women in conversations around Menstrual hygiene, and menstrual hygiene management.