Health experts and advocates have named “period poverty” as the main reason that young girls routinely stay away from school, especially in developing countries.
Period poverty is when a girl cannot afford menstrual products during menstruation, which is approximately four days every four weeks. Such girls would often resort to unhygienic practices.
Menstruation is an integral part of a woman’s life but is a nightmare for the over 1.2 billion women across the world who do not have access to basic sanitation during their periods, according to a study.
Another report suggests that women who experience period poverty are likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.
Period poverty – though globally recognised – still gets less attention in many parts of Africa.
One in 10 African girls misses school during their periods, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates. This means they fall behind in their studies and often drop out of school.
The National Democracy and Health Survey 2013, revealed that girls make up 60 per cent of the 10.5 million out-of-school children in Nigeria.
Pad up – The Encounter
Ashley Lori, a health activist, formed a movement to end ‘period poverty’ in Nigerian schools with her ‘Pad-Up Africa’ campaign – a menstrual sensitisation initiative.
She began her advocacy in March 2018 after an encounter with some schoolgirls on the streets of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
“One day, I was moving and saw four girls in Mabushi–Jabi area (of Abuja). They were with a newspaper stained with blood and I thought someone had injured herself so I stopped to check.
“One of them said she was trying to change her sanitary pad which was actually a rough old newspaper.
“She said the newspaper was what they use when I asked. I took them to a supermarket and got them pads. From there, I took them to their school,” Mrs Lori narrated to PREMIUM TIMES.
The health advocate said she was confronted with grimmer stories upon getting to the school.
“A girl in the school said she wore seven skirts during her period because she could not buy pads.”
The mother of three said the encounter motivated her to start the campaign.
While the government appears lukewarm in tackling period poverty, many young Nigerians such as Mrs Lori have picked the baton.
On Saturday morning, she led over a hundred youth to the Millennium Park for a march dubbed, “One million pad campaign – a walk for pad” to raise awareness and demand free sanitary wears for school girls.
The march came ahead of the world Menstrual Hygiene Day on Monday.
Through previous campaigns, the 34-year-old activist said Pad-Up Africa has distributed free sanitary pads to schools, mostly in Abuja and its surroundings, and is now hoping to draw the attention of the government, international organisations and key players in the pad industry through the walk.
“They need to see the need for free pads for secondary school girls. If we can have condoms for free in schools, why not pads?
“Sex is a choice but periods are inevitable.”
Undeterred Young Nigerians
Even before Saturday’s march, many young Nigerians had been calling on the government to reduce or stop taxing female hygiene products.
They also demanded that sanitary pads be distributed free to secondary school students and teenagers in rural areas.
Last October, they submitted a petition titled “An appeal to end all the taxes on menstrual hygiene products (including sanitary pads) and pass the menstrual hygiene bill” to the National Assembly.
Despite these calls, the government is unmoved as menstrual products remain taxed – resulting in higher prices of pads.
Between 2015 and 2019, sanitary pads like Always Ultra rose from N250 to N400. Most Tampon brand products which sold for N750 have risen to about N1200.
The hike is also linked to the fall in the exchange value of the national currency, the naira, as many women prefer foreign pads to locally manufactured products. (Even local products are also expensive due to taxes.)
PREMIUM TIMES’ research showed that many Nigerian girls and young women now use cloth napkins, cotton wools and tissue paper due to escalating costs of tampons.
Long Road to Free-pads
A paucity of funds is chief among challenges to sustaining any advocacy for free pads said the young activist.
She said some mothers disallow their daughters from collecting the free pads because they cannot sustain buying it for them.
She said government, stakeholders and pad companies have a civic responsibility to give free pads in schools – especially in rural areas – and track them to ensure they are not sold.
“The government should find a way to subsidise or totally remove value-added taxes on pads. They should partner with pad companies.”
Ladi Ogoleye, the project manager of Pad-up Africa said the movement had engaged government agencies and institutions such as the Federal Inland Revenue Services (FIRS), the National Assembly and “even the First Lady (Aisha Buhari). We hope they give us an audience.”
Beyond Period Poverty
Beyond period poverty, experts point to lack of water and poor or inadequate toilet facilities in schools as other reasons girls stay away from school during periods.
A 2015 UNICEF survey revealed that most school toilets in Nigeria are unkempt with only 25 per cent having clean water, soap and sinks.
Mrs Lori said some schools and communities they visited did not even have toilet facilities.
“The ones that have toilets lack water, that’s why even girls who can afford tampons also stay away from schools in their periods.
“Government should make provision for toilets and water. They should also provide a small cubicle with sewage where girls can change their pads in schools,” she said.
Cynthia Anyele said she was motivated to join the Pad-up Africa campaign by the poor awareness and stigma associated with menstruation.
She shared an experience she had during her first period.
“I woke up and saw blood all over me and I was shocked. I was scared. I thought I was pregnant and I told my sister not to tell our parents. It took time before I realised I was just seeing my period.
“Parents don’t go the extra length to educate young people on what to expect when they get to puberty stage. Millions of children out there don’t know what to expect when they find themselves in the same situation as I was then and that is why am here.”
Free Pads: What Kenya Did?
In 2017, PREMIUM TIMES reported how Kenya introduced a law giving schoolgirls right to “free, sufficient and quality sanitary towels” and a safe place to dispose of them.
The law was aimed at making girls stay in school during their monthly flow.
“We are treating access to sanitary pads as a basic human right,” government spokesman Eric Kiraithe had told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The policy was estimated to cost Kenya 500 million shillings ($4.8 million) a year, Mr Kiraithe said.
But just like many programmes by African governments, it remains vague whether this policy was sustained in Kenya.
A report by Independent UK revealed how teenage girls trade sex for pads in the suburbs of Kenya, a year after the policy was announced.
The sex for pads trend ultimately leads to unwanted pregnancy that will eventually force the girl to leave school entirely.