By Gugu Nonjinge

Research shows that underprivileged girls can miss up to 50 days of school per year due to lack of access to adequate feminine hygiene. Since the release of these statistics, hundreds of sanitary towel distribution programmes have been initiated to help keep young girls in school during their monthly cycles. As a girl child and education advocate, I am in full support of these programmes and campaigns. I assert that the effectiveness of this type of activism must never be thwarted. However, more must be done to advocate for meaningful engagement with the issue at hand. There is a huge gap for health education on puberty and adolescence. It is crucial that we engage girls on health education in order to demystify menstrual related myths and break down societal taboos.

Many cultures perpetuate myths relating to menstruation. For example, in some cultures, women and girls are told that during their menstrual cycle they should not bathe (or they will become infertile), touch a cow (or it will become infertile), look in a mirror (or it will lose its brightness), or touch a plant (or it will die). In many societal settings, menstruating girls are even seen as less capable and impure.

Almost always, there are social norms or unwritten rules and practices about managing menstruation and interacting with menstruating girls and women. Most cultures have secret practices around managing periods. Some of these have potentially harmful implications.

These myths and social norms restrict women and girls’ levels of participation in society. This can make their daily lives difficult and limit their freedom.

Talking openly about menstruation remains a major taboo. The shame attached to menstruation is one that is detrimental to young girls learning about their bodies – often young girls have little knowledge of puberty and menstruation before they experience them. This leaves girls scared and ashamed when they begin menstruating and poorly prepared to handle the physical and emotional demands of adolescence – including how to access family planning services and protect themselves from pregnancy.

Making honest information available is vital to counter negative menstruation narratives and support those with positive impacts. For millions of girls, a universal lack of clear information and education makes menstruation a source of shame and embarrassment.  A 2017 survey, commissioned by Always, indicated that 59% of South African teen girls wish they had been better prepared for puberty. This is mainly why puberty education in schools across South Africa (and Africa at large) should be taken a lot more seriously.

Girls need information! It is with this in mind that a curriculum that focuses on the most vulnerable, including the youngest and those who are out of school, is necessary. The programmes should be geared towards society at large.   Mothers for example are central to shifting the harmful gender norms that surround menstruation. Fathers or male role models could show acceptance and overcome their often ‘I don’t want to talk about this attitude’, which would help to normalise menstruation in society.  Furthermore, schools working hand-in-hand with the Department of Health should look into the issue of menstrual hygiene in school. Girls face great difficulty in managing menstruation in such a way that it is hygienic. Without access to supplies, spaces and support, they are vulnerable to infection and are prone to school absenteeism.

Lastly, research on the effectiveness of existing puberty and menstruation related interventions is thin. Therefore research is urgently needed in order to address evidence gaps and to roll out an effect curriculum on health education.

Gugu Nonjinge is a Communications and Advocacy officer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation