Menstrual Hygiene Day: How The Sanitary Aid Initiative supports Women and Girls across Nigeria

Credit: @artbyfunmi

The article was originally published on Meeting of Minds

Menstruation is a natural part of a girls coming of age story, it’s a biological phenomenon, and thus, Women and girls should not be subject to shame, social stigma or disrupted schooling — PERIOD!

There’s been a series of tweets with Nigerian women sharing their experiences about the type of sanitary products they use, some experiencing irritations, burning sensations, rashes and even cysts. How can a product designed to absorb menstrual discharge and protect clothing, cause harm? Why are such accounts never heard of in the West?

Patriarchy and misogyny is rampant across the world and has been institutionalised via legislation. For instance, a UNESCO report highlights that one in ten African girls miss school due to menstruation. Despite African Women and girls being the driving force of the continent, African girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are far more likely to experience period poverty. By taking into account the various intersections, sanitary products are scarce and inaccessible to less able-bodied Women and girls, as well as those placed in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, and those in conflict ridden regions — are also more likely to experience period poverty.

A 2015 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study in the Nigerian states of Anambra, Katsina and Osun highlighted that many school girls believed that menstruation was a secretive and unclean experience, and expressed fear that used menstrual hygiene products could be taken for rituals and could cause them harm. Although this is disheartening and deeply worrying, it’s imperative that we interrogate where these dangerous narratives and beliefs come from — society does not exist in a vacuum and it’s not a surprise that living in a patriarchal country that oppresses women can produce such narratives. Sanitary products should be free but unfortunately it’s a luxury in countries like Nigeria where the average pad is $1.30 (equating to roughly 400 naira at the current exchange rate) and with over 41% of Nigerians living in extreme poverty (86 million), many Women and girls simply cannot afford sanitary products, let alone those in IDP camps and conflict regions.

In honour of Menstrual Hygiene Day, I spoke to Tolani from The Sanitary Aid Initiative to get a glimpse of the work they do to support and educate Nigerian girls about menstrual hygiene. Established in 2017, The Sanitary Aid Initiative exists to address the problem with the lack of access to pads in Nigeria. Importantly, “the organisation aims to provide free sanitary pads and other sanitary products including soaps, wipes, toilet bags, disinfectant, clean underwear etc. to girls from low-income families across public schools in Nigeria and girls in IDP camps across the country.” In a bid to ensure consistency and sustainability, sanitary drives are organised every month.

“Tolani tells me that on Twitter, Nigerian men would mention how their mothers used rags for their periods and question why the Women of today can’t do the same.”

Passionate about Women and girls’ rights, Tolani tells me that “due to poverty in Nigeria, about 5 to 6 million girls and Women cannot afford proper sanitary products to use, and they have to resort to using tissue, rags, or leaves. Sometimes, tissues are even unaffordable.” Furthermore, she noted that period poverty is a systemic issue with poorer Women and girls being unable to afford these products, reminding us that an intersectional approach to these issues is important because no experience is universal. Due to this, “some girls are more likely to drop out of school” and unfortunately some girls have been exploited by older men for money in exchange for sexual favours — for as little as 500 Naira, less than £1 — to purchase sanitary products.

Nigeria is scarily misogynistic, where sexism is so rife — men debate with Women about their periods on Twitter NG. It wasn’t exactly a surprise to hear that men would share their unwarranted thoughts on the topic of menstruation. Tolani tells me that on Twitter, Nigerian men would mention how their mothers used rags for their periods and question why the Women of today can’t do the same. Instead, the initial 8 women behind the Sanitary Aid Initiative mobilised via social media and raised awareness of period poverty and from then, donated pads across the country in a bid to address the scarcity — with their outreach drives hosted across Nigeria from Ibadan and Lagos in the Southwest, Katsina in the Northwest, Maiduguri in the Northeast and Abuja and Jos in the Middle Belt. However, Tolani tells me that due to the unsustainable nature of disposable pads, they had to partner with organisations producing safe reusable pads despite the products being four times more expensive.

Sexual health and consent education is unsatisfactory in Nigeria (and other countries) and because of this, The Sanitary Aid Initiative often collaborates with Hands Off Nigeria — an organisation dedicated to educating Nigerians about consent — and Stand to End Rape, a Nigerian youth-led social enterprise advocating against sexual violence. To support them, you can donate here to help The Sanitary Aid Initiative consistently provide free pads and general hygiene products to young girls from low-income families and girls in IDP camps across Nigeria.

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