As a menstruating woman, I know firsthand the struggles that come with menstruation. The physical discomfort, the social stigma, the financial burden and the mental health implications are just some of the challenges that women and girls face every month.
However, in East Africa, these challenges are exacerbated by cultural taboos, lack of access to menstrual products and inadequate menstrual hygiene education. It is time to break the taboo and address menstrual hygiene and mental health in the region through the East African Community Sexual and Reproductive Health (EAC SRH) Bill.
In many parts of East Africa, menstruation is still shrouded in secrecy and shame. Girls are taught to hide their periods and the topic rarely discussed openly. This silence perpetuates the stigma and reinforces the idea that menstruation is dirty or shameful. Many girls feel embarrassed and ashamed, with a possible profound impact on their mental health.
The lack of access to menstrual products is another major issue. Girls are forced to use unsanitary materials like old rags or newspapers during their periods, leading to a high incidence of reproductive tract infections, which can have serious long-term health consequences.
Others simply cannot afford sanitary pads, or tampons, which can be prohibitively expensive. The financial burden can be a significant source of stress for women and girls.
Lack of menstrual hygiene education and facilities in schools compounds the issues. Menstruating girls miss school for lack of adequate facilities or fear of being teased or ostracised, with serious consequences for their education and, hence, future.
Basic human right
The bill is an opportunity to address these issues and improve the lives of women and girls. Besides provisions for menstrual hygiene education and free menstrual products in schools and public spaces as a basic human right, it also aims to break the silence and promote positive attitudes towards menstruation. It seeks to improve access to sexual and reproductive health services, which can address poor menstrual hygiene and management.
But it is not without its challenges. It may face opposition from those who view menstruation as a taboo topic or are reluctant to invest in menstrual hygiene initiatives. While the bill is a step in the right direction, it is not enough on its own.
There needs to be a change in cultural attitudes to menstruation with open dialogue and education about the importance of menstrual hygiene and management. Women need to be empowered to take control of their menstrual health with access to the necessary products and services. Menstrual hygiene is not just a women’s but a public health issue.
Menstruation is a natural process that affects half the population but shrouded in secrecy and shame. By addressing it, we can improve the mental health and well-being of women and girls and promote gender equality and social justice. The time is now.
Ms Kathia is a communications consultant and sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) youth advocate. [email protected].