Although it directly affects half of the world’s population, people often don’t talk about menstruation. This is especially a problem for young people. In Tanzania and Ethiopia, every fourth young woman does not know what menstruation is. So it is a big shock when she discovers blood stains on her clothes for the first time. How do girls and women in DSW’s project countries experience their periods? What particular obstacles do they face?
Eva Herrmann and Florian Paulus from the DSW project team give us an insight below into how menstruation is addressed in DSW’s projects and how DSW is coping with the new challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why do people talk so little about periods? Is menstruation a taboo?
Eva: Absolutely. Menstruation is a taboo almost everywhere in the world. Not only in the global South, but also in Germany and Europe, people still talk about menstruation behind closed doors – if at all, even though menstruation actually affects half of the population.
Florian: The topic of menstruation is rarely discussed at school, among friends and in the family. When it does come up, boys and men often close their ears to it. This perpetuates myths but also shame.
What particular difficulties do you observe in DSW’s project countries when it comes to menstruation?
Eva: In some traditions, young women and girls are considered unclean when they are menstruating. They usually don’t go to school when they have their period. If they do, they are often teased by their classmates. As the stigma around menstruation is so widespread, there are usually few counselling services where young women can ask their questions. Many feel left alone – month after month.
Florian: Another difficulty is that menstrual products are often relatively expensive in our project countries or there are no suitable products to choose from. Sometimes a piece of cloth or leaves are used but this is not always hygienic and can led to infections. In addition, there is often no clean water and rubbish bins in the schools, let alone privacy. This is another reason why girls often stay at home during their period. In Kenya, for example, girls miss more than 50 days of school a year because of their menstruation.
Eva: You also have to remember that many girls and women cannot isolate themselves during their period even if they wanted to. If they then also don’t have money for menstrual products, many get into a real predicament. The period is taboo, no one is allowed to see it, but how can they hide it without pads or tampons? Because they see no other way to get money to buy menstrual hygiene products, among other things, young women in particular sometimes get involved in paid sex with older men. Unfortunately, these cases are increasing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, because fewer pads are being distributed and money is particularly scarce.
Has DSW reacted to this acute increase?
Florian: Yes, certainly. The DSW youth clubs and youth centres stepped in to bridge the gap during this time and distributed menstrual products where they were needed.
How else does DSW address menstruation in its project work?
Florian: Specifically, we support a project in Uganda in which a youth club produces biodegradable disposable sanitary pads and offers them at low cost. This not only improves the supply of sanitary pads but also creates jobs for young people.
Eva: We also work on a political level. In 2017, the government in Kenya passed a law committing to provide menstrual hygiene products. Our Kenyan colleagues are working to ensure that the state fulfils its obligation.
Florian: Of course, we also address menstruation in our “classic work” – in our youth centres and youth clubs. To do this, we use our peer-to-peer approach: young people of the same age talk to each other about menstruation. In the next step, DSW also involves the young people’s environment. This includes conversations with families and dialogues in communities. In close cooperation with teaching staff, we organise educational events in schools.
Not all of this is possible during the COVID-19 pandemic….
Florian: That’s true. We had to replan all of our projects. The youth clubs and our colleagues on the ground have been great in responding and doing awareness raising activities via social media, radio and group chats. They have also made sure that training content is digitalised.
Do DSW’s projects change the way menstruation is viewed?
Florian: There are some DSW youth clubs where the young people specifically generate money to buy pads and tampons, for example. These are then provided free of charge. In general, it is important for us to make the issue visible. By talking to parents, DSW has managed to get fathers, among others, to deal more with the issue of menstruation and the health of their daughters. If we want to eliminate the taboo surrounding menstruation, we have to do this throughout society. Men should also actively participate in this!
Eva: As long as menstruation is a taboo, we see a clear need for action. Also from a political standpoint. Much more money should be spent so that menstrual hygiene products are easily available everywhere. Better information about menstruation also needs to be provided so that the stigma surrounding periods disappears. Our goal is to make menstruation something normal and everyday – in our partner countries, but also here in Germany and Europe. People should be able to ask for a tampon just as bluntly as they would ask for a tissue.