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A turning point for girls and women’s menstrual health in Africa

28 May 2018
"We must stop period shaming and empower our girls." - Bathabile Dlamini, Minister for Women in the Presidency of the Government of South Africa. © UNFPA ESARO/Gulshan Khan

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Access to sanitary products, dignity and education on menstrual health management is “a human rights issue that all of us must strive for.”

This call was made by Bathabile Dlamini, Minister for Women in the Presidency of the Government of South Africa, at the region’s first Menstrual Health Management Symposium, in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 28-29 May 2018.

How do we empower young girls to know that menstruation is not something to be ashamed of?

The event – which aims to change narratives, break down taboos and build positive social norms – has been organized jointly by the Department of Women and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. It is focused on ‘Improving Menstrual Health Management for Adolescent Girls and Women’.

“Menstrual myths have a long history [embedded] in our lack of understanding about the human body.” - eSwatini rap artist KrTC of Hip Hop. © UNFPA ESARO/Gulshan Khan

Ms. Dlamini called for the matter of menstruation to be normalized in society. “How do we empower young girls to know that menstruation is not something to be ashamed of? We must stop period shaming in our homes, our schools, our places of worship and all other important spaces in our lives.” 

Star power was leant to the symposium by South African actress Hlubi Mboya as emcee, eSwatini rap artist KrTC of Hip Hop, and Kenyan music celebrity and menstrual health champion, King Kaka.

Stop period shaming and start empowering our girls

"As we normalize menstruation, we must not trivialize menstrual disorders." - Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, Regional Director for UNFPA East and Southern Africa. © UNFPA ESARO/Gulshan Khan

“Let this symposium mark a turning point [in menstrual health management] for us across the continent,” said Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, Regional Director for UNFPA East and Southern Africa.

Policy makers are increasingly aware of the return of investment around sexual and reproductive health, including menstrual health management, she said. The reason is not surprising: “Did you know that 350 million women are menstruating in Africa on any given day of the year?”

However, there are a enormous challenges that need to be addressed first. “African sexuality is very much a hidden thing…[but  not talking about sex] perpetuates stigma and discrimination.”

She called on men and boys to be included in the conversation, if menstruation is to be normalized. “How do we socialize boys and engage men regards menstrual matters?  We want them to be allies and supporters,” she said.  

Access to sexuality education is vital for menstrual literacy but also for self confidence, self esteem and self worth.

She stressed the importance of fully informing women and girls to empower them. “Access to sexuality education is vital for menstrual literacy but also for self confidence, self esteem and self worth.”

Also, the downside of menstrual periods needs to be tackled. “As we normalize menstruation, we must not trivialize menstrual disorders. Period cramps do hurt. Depression and PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome) is real,” she said.

Kenyan music celebrity and menstrual health champion King Kaka (2nd from right) describes using part of his gig money to buy and distribute sanitary pads to schoolgirls in Nairobi who can't afford them. On the panel are (from left): facilitator Justine Coulson, UNFPA Deputy Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, Chieftainess Malerotholi Seeiso, Chairman of the Queen's National Trust Fund, Lesotho; Flo Carson, Social Development Advisor, DFID; and Pontsho Pilane, Mail & Guardian health journalist. © UNFPA ESARO/Sven Meela

Sea change for action

More than 300 participants, including government representatives, academics, regional economic communities, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, donors, youth-led organizations and other partners are contributing towards a sea change for African girls and women’s menstrual health.

This includes strengthened commitment to address barriers to menstrual health management, throughout the menstrual life cycle, in East and Southern Africa. Recommendations will be made for strengthened menstrual health management in East and Southern Africa.

The symposium will see the launch of an African Task Force to strengthen effectiveness and collaboration for better menstrual health management in Africa. A regional menstrual health management symposium is to be convened every two years to report on progress against commitment.