By Idrissa Sane
Dismantling the prejudices that surround menstruation is a topic that concerns organizations such as UN Women and WSSCC, which recently organized a panel discussion on the issue. The speakers invited mothers to discuss the matter with their daughters. They also suggested developing persuasive arguments and offering training to teachers. Some believe that school is a useful starting point for launching the debate.
The debate focused on Menstrual Hygiene Management and breaking the silence that surrounds the issue. “There is a problem of communication, based on the usual things. It’s important that we develop a good communications strategy. We need persuasive arguments,” suggested Absa Wade, who is responsible for Gender Equality at the Ministry for Women, Family and Children in Senegal.
National Assembly member Awa Diagne agreed wholeheartedly, emphasizing the importance of more intense efforts to raise awareness. Schools were a useful starting point. “I think we need to talk about managing menstruation in educational institutions,” she argued. But there is a pre-requisite – namely training teachers – while other speakers believe the debate needs to take place within the family. “In Africa, everything is seen in terms of problems. We need to transform problems into opportunities; we need people to agree to talk and to talk about it,” argued WaterAid Regional Director Marième Dem.
Mr. Ly, Chief of Staff at the Senegalese Ministry of Water and Sanitation, highlighted the importance of the context and reminded the panelists that six African countries will achieve the MDGs linked to sanitation. “Menstruation raises new issues. Whatever the circumstances, it mustn’t be a taboo for the state. We need to work on how we take account of it,” suggested Mr. Ly.
One of the consultants, Mr. Kébé, commented on the drama young girls live through at these times. In some remote areas they are kept apart from their families. “Menstruation is synonymous with isolation, exclusion and a restricted diet. Schools encourage absenteeism amongst girls because they don’t have any girls’ toilets,” he pointed out. According to a recent study in Louga, 36% of those questioned rarely go to school and 68% rarely work in the fields, collect water or gather wood when they are having their period.
The panelists also discussed the recent publication of two UN Women/WSSCC Joint Programme studies carried out in the Kédougou and Louga regions. These revealed the persistence of taboos around a logical biological fact. According to the study carried out in the Kédougou region, almost two thirds (65.2%) of the female respondents questioned said they had never asked anything at all about menstruation. “Menstruation is taboo in the region; women and girls only ask for help if they are late or their menstrual cycle is disrupted, and they tend to be worried about whether they’re pregnant,” reports a gynaecologist in the region.
In total, 85.6% of the women and girls questioned said that they needed more information about menstruation. It appeared that as soon as they first had their periods, mothers tended to warn their daughters about contact with men rather than giving them the right information: “Generally, the first explanations girls get are about sanitary protection to absorb the blood on the one hand, and the risk of getting pregnant on the other. They forbid their daughters from seeing men to avoid getting pregnant,” according to the study.
The persistence of prejudices has prompted civil society organizations and other bodies to open up the debate on a taboo subject. The speakers are under no illusions, however: attitudes will not be changed overnight. “We are working in West Africa because these subjects are still taboo there. It’s difficult but we have to try to talk about it,” acknowledged WSSCC Director Chris Williams at the end of the discussion.