Menstrual Stigma

Another Cultural and Practical Hurdle for Ethiopian Girls

Period poverty is a huge problem for women all over the world, both in developed and developing countries. Millions of girls especially in developing countries like Ethiopia are forced to skip school every month because of inadequate menstrual supplies, adding up to hundreds of hours of missed classes every academic year. A lack of proper water and sanitation, as well as poverty is preventing girls and women from exploiting their full potential. EBR’s Menna Asrat looks into the actions being taken to address the issue.

In much of the world menstruation is still a taboo subject. Especially in developing countries like Ethiopia, where privacy and tradition are highly valued, discussing female reproductive health is at best ignored, and at worst, frowned on.

Shrouded in secrecy as it is, in Ethiopia, where nearly 23.5Pct of the population live below the poverty line, appropriate menstrual hygiene management has become another stumbling block for urban and rural girls alike in their pursuit of education.

Bizunesh Benti, 15, who is a student at a public secondary school in Addis Ababa, is one of these girls. The ninth grade student lives in a poverty stricken area of Addis Ababa in Lideta District, with her aunt. The two live in a run-down mud house with one room, and survive on less than ETB1,000 a month.

“I think I am a good student,” says Bizunesh. “I do well in my classes, and on my tests. My teachers say they are happy with my work.”

Despite being a high-achieving student, Bizunesh is one of the many female students in Addis, and in the whole country, who are forced to miss school because of something to which many people don’t give a second thought. Since she and her aunt make only just enough money to survive on, she is often unable to afford to buy enough sanitary pads.

“It’s embarrassing,” she says. “Sometimes, I get marks on my school uniform. It creates a lot of stress. I can’t focus in class because I’m worrying about whether I have to go to the bathroom, or whether I can get up from my chair without being embarrassed.”

So to avoid the embarrassment and anxiety that comes with having her period at school, like so many students do, she doesn’t go to school.

This is not an uncommon scenario for female students in Ethiopia. Even though various governmental and non-governmental organisations have worked to reduce the issues surrounding menstruation, girls, whose enrolment in primary education is 47Pct (primary education in Ethiopia is until eighth grade) in rural and urban areas miss up to 12 days of school a term due to their menses, according to an estimate by the World Bank. This in turn leads to reduced participation in secondary and higher education by female students, adding to other roadblocks they face, including sexual harassment and early marriage.

The perception towards menstruation is also unsettling. According to a study carried out four years ago by Tiret Community Empowerment for Change Association, together with Netherlands Development Organization (Ethiopia), on 769 school girls living in four regional states, 26.9Pct of respondents believed menstruation to be a disease or a curse.

Another study done by researchers from Mekelle University in 2015 discovered that out of 428 household members, 54 believed that girls should not attend school during menstruation. It is not only the norms and beliefs surrounding menstruation that pose a problem for students like Bizunesh, who is one of the close to 700,000 girls who attend secondary schools in Ethiopia. Extreme poverty, the availability of few female teachers and poor distribution of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities all compound the problem, meaning that all over the country adolescent girls drop out of school for preventable reasons. In fact, the school dropout rate for girls has partly been linked to inability to afford sanitary pads.

In communities where there is low distribution of sanitary products, women have even used mattress stuffing, old rags, torn toilet paper, or newspaper and even leaves to deal with their periods, exposing them to illnesses and infections that come with improper sanitation.

However, some people in Ethiopia are taking the matter into their own hands to ensure that girls and women are empowered and able to take care of their reproductive health and do not have to miss out on their education because of it. One such organisation is Progynist, which is a local not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation set up in 1997 to promote the welfare of Ethiopian women. For the last two years, the organization has implemented a menstrual hygiene management program in collaboration with Water Aid and the Netherlands Development Association (SNV) in the states of Oromia and SNNP.

“This is such a big issue,” explained Netsanet Mengistu, founder and director of Progynist. “The majority of women in Ethiopia are in the low-income earning bracket. They cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins. A pack of just ten disposable sanitary napkins costs no less than ETB20.”

One of the programs that the organization has been implementing is the distribution of reusable sanitary napkins to women in rural areas. It supplied 2,000 napkins to areas in the states of Oromia and SNNP. These napkins, made from cloth scraps, can be washed, dried in the sun and be reused up to 10 times or more, with proper care. Women were also trained to produce them on their own as an income generating activity, and to provide supplies for themselves and their communities.

Disposable sanitary napkins sell for around ETB15-35 a pack, each containing ten pads, whereas the reusable napkins can be made for less than about ETB20 a piece. For families who are subsisting on less than or around a dollar a day, the cost is prohibitive, to say the least. For women in rural areas, where shops are extremely scarce or non-existent in some areas, accessing appropriate sanitation and hygiene products is all but impossible. But with the reusable ones, says Netsanet, girls do not have to go to extra expenses.

“We partnered with schools to sell the pads to students at a low price,” she added. However, the lack of water infrastructures presents a major obstacle for any initiatives of this kind although the government reported that the percentage of people with access to potable water reached 68Pct and 55Pct in rural and urban areas, respectively. “Even if there are female-friendly bathrooms, or sanitary napkins, if there is no water, the whole thing is useless,” Netsanet explained.

Female students in higher education, who make up around 34Pct of undergraduates in higher education institutions, also suffer from the issues that come with inadequate menstrual management. To help address these issues, groups like the Yellow Movement have begun various initiatives to raise awareness and provide solutions. The Yellow Movement is an activist group that started on the campus of Addis Ababa University (AAU) in 2011, with the purpose of ensuring the interests of female students on campus were being protected. Having started as an initiative to address sexual harassment and abuse on campus, the group also raises money to help support students from poor family backgrounds fulfil basic educational and hygiene needs through the sales of Valentine’s Day flowers.

“We calculated that ETB2,000 can support one student for 10 months,” explained Blen Sahilu, one of the founders of the Yellow Movement. “So when we sell, we let people know what the money is going towards, and what they are helping to accomplish.”

As a former student of AAU herself, Blen, in her mid 30s, is well aware of the issues that face female students from poor or rural families. “You see people from all over Ethiopia at Addis Ababa University, from the very poor to the well off,” she explained. “There is a perception that once you make it to AAU, that you’ve got it made. But the problems that existed before don’t go away. If students are poor, they are still poor in university.”

So the problems that students like Bizunesh face are universal across all levels of education. Providing sanitary materials to students is only part of the issue, according to Mehret Okubay, also an alumna of AAU and a member of the Yellow Movement. Since she graduated, she has been a mentor to other female students on campus. “We raised around ETB300,000 last year, and we have around 139 beneficiary students,” she said. “But the perception around menstruation is that it’s dirty. There is still a stigma against discussing things about female sexual health and sexuality. This makes even women, or especially women, uncomfortable about talking about it.”

Even with the steps being taken by various actors to address the many problems being faced by women in education, there are still hills to climb. “The stigma against talking about menstruation is better,” says Blen. “However, there is still a long way to go.”

6th Year . May 16 – June 15 2018 . No.61

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