Anne Obidike was somewhat shy talking about her menstrual hygiene management with PREMIUM TIMES. When she finally agreed to, she confessed that she could count the number of times she used sanitary products since she started menstruating.
“I don’t even worry about getting money to buy pads. How many will I buy?” the 21-year-old secondary school leaver said. “How many will I use? How much do I have to keep buying sanitary pads? I don’t have that kind of money.
“I remember when ALWAYS (a brand of sanitary pad) was N200. Now it is N400 or N500. Other products are equally expensive. I just prepare my clothes (napkins) whenever my period is approaching,” Miss Obidike said.
After writing the Secondary School Certificate Examination, she went into baking and selling snacks in Karu, a densely populated suburb of the federal capital, Abuja, to put aside money pending her expected admission into the university.
“Like, back then in secondary school when all these ‘Always’ people visited our school, they would share pads to us. Before that time, when ‘Always’ was N200 and even N250, we bought and used it but now when you think of the current price, you realise many other things you can do with such money,” she said.
Miss Obidike said she uses old clothes also because unlike sanitary pads, they can be washed and reused.
She is, however, ignorant of the health implications of her menstrual hygiene management choice. To her, as long as the napkin is frequently washed, it is healthy.
Gloria Dominic, a student of Government Secondary School – Karu East, Nasarawa State, told a similar story.
She also uses cloth napkins “because my parents cannot afford sanitary pads for me and my two sisters.” She would rather miss school whenever she does not feel comfortable.
She told PREMIUM TIMES that she and her siblings had been using cloth napkins for as long as she could remember.
Anne and Gloria are just two of countless Nigerian girls who use other materials as substitutes for sanitary products.
While many of them do not get the proper education on menstruation and menstrual hygiene prior to their first menstrual cycle, those who do fail to understand the importance of menstrual hygiene management. According to UNICEF, it is the process where women and adolescent girls use a clean menstrual hygiene material to absorb blood that can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of the menstruation period, using soap and water for washing their bodies as required and having access to facilities to dispose off used materials.
In developing third world countries, 60 per cent of women and girls do not have access to sanitary products mostly due to poverty. A UNESCO report estimated one in 10 school-age African girls do not attend school during menstruation, which is approximately four days every four weeks.
RISING COST OF PADS
Nigeria is one of the many countries that tax menstrual products, putting further strain on women and girls from underprivileged communities.
Between 2015 and 2018, sanitary pads like Always Ultra rose from N250 to N400, Always Classic from N200 to N300, and Lady Care from N250 to N400. Most Tampon brand products which sold for N750 have risen to about N1200.
The reason for the price hike can be traced to the inflation in the country and the fall in the exchange value of the national currency, the naira.
Although sanitary pads are the healthiest and most convenient menstrual management products because they are comfortable and leave little or no stain, PREMIUM TIMES’ research showed that many Nigerian girls and young women now use cloth napkins, cotton wools and tissue paper for economics reaons.
NIGERIAN YOUTH MOVE TO END PERIOD POVERTY
Prior to the hike in the price of sanitary pads, there were calls from both young women and men on government to reduce or stop taxing female hygiene products in Nigeria. They said if condoms are shared free, sanitary pads should be too.
Some groups of young advocates, non-governmental organisations and individuals have taken bold steps to reduce and possibly end menstrual period poverty in the country.
In October 2018, many Nigerians began advocacy on various social media platforms, particuarly on Twitter, urging the federal government to scrap the tax on sanitary pads to make them affordable for women and young girls. Using the hashtag, #EndThe9jaTaxOnPads, the campaign relayed the plight of young girls – especially those in rural areas – who use materials like towels and tissues as substitutes for sanitary pads.
They also demanded that sanitary pads be distributed free to secondary school students and teenagers in rural areas.
About two weeks later, 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.
The petition was written by the convener of the #EndThe9jaTaxOnPads advocacy, Harvey Olufunmilayo, alongside Social Justice Advocate and the co-founder of Whole Woman Network, Juliet Kego, a public analyst and youth advocate, Yemi Fasipe, Yemi Ojora, a tax professional, social advocate and other youth advocates “who worked behind the scenes.”
The petition dated November 1 was submitted to the offices of the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, his deputy, Ike Ekweremadu, chairman of the Senate Committees on Health, Lanre Tejuoso; and the wife of the Senate president, Toyin Saraki.
Copies of the petition were also submitted to the offices of all the female senators and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara.
In the six-page document, the advocates explained the academic, economic as well as health challenges arising from the high costs of women sanitary products and demanded passage of “the menstrual hygiene bill.”
According to them, the bill seeks to end the Value Added Tax on sanitary pads, end import duties on imported pads and grant “Pioneer Industry” status to all local pad producing companies – which means they will pay no Company Tax for three years to five years.
The bill also wants the government to actively intervene to cut down the prices of sanitary pads by 50 percent, make donations to pad NGOs tax-free and make a “Policy of Public Conveniences.” This would make it mandatory for all public institutions to provide sanitary pads in toilets as they do toilet roll, soap and water.
Mr Olufunmilayo told PREMIUM TIMES that a personal interaction with an acquaintance pushed him to the campaign.
“A lady asked me if she could use cotton wool for her period because she was too broke to afford pads. Then I did my research on the prices of pads and it broke my heart. I realised that considering the current minimum wage and the earnings of many people in Nigeria, this must be an unannounced problem for many women.
“Considering most people spend between N1000 to N1500 on the average monthly on pads, I think it is imperative that the government (not just NGOs and private individuals) look into heavily subsidising sanitary products for women and give them free in poor communities,” he said.
Mr Olufunmilayo, who is a London-based doctor, isproud of what his team has achieved so far. He, however, hoped that the lawmakers will do justice to the petition.
Although some acknowledged copies of the document show that the lawmakers received them between November 5 and 6, there was no mention of it in the Senate before it adjourned for the end of year holidays.
When contacted, the Special Adviser to the Senate President on Media and Publicity, Yusuph Olaniyonu, was unsure if his principal got the petition on women sanitary pads.
“I am sure if SP gets such letter, it would have been referred to the Chairman, Committee on Women Affairs for immediate action. Any idea concerning legislative action is never delayed in that office,” he said.
The chairman of the Senate committee on health, Mr Tejuoso, also said he was not aware of the letter. But he said there are many of such bills before various committees and hoped that “everything will be done before the end of the session” (of the Eighth Senate).
Mr Tejouso pledged to check for the letter as soon as he is back to the office.
Of all the female senators, only Stella Oduah was available to comment on the issue. She simply replied a text message saying she “did not get” the letter.
While Fatimat Raji-Razaki claimed it was a wrong number, Rose Oko, Monsurat Sunmonu and Oluremi Tinubu neither answered nor returned calls made to them.
Binta Garba and Biodun Olujimi were not reachable. None of them responded to text messages either.
OTHER NIGERIAN WARRIORS
Mr Olufunmilayo and his team are not the only ones fighting the war against period poverty.
Many Nigerian youth across the country have taken it upon themselves to put smiles on the faces of students and young girls in rural areas who cannot afford sanitary products.
Adegoke Pamilerin is known on various social media platforms for always giving out sanitary pads to students in rural communities. He has been able to reach out to hundreds of secondary school students in Lagos.
In December last year, he announced that he would donate his savings to ensuring that every less-privileged teenage girl gets a pad. He told PREMIUM TIMES that his aim was to help reduce period poverty in Nigeria. He said he was not doing it for rewards, “just to help and move on.”
Mr Pamilerin’s next stop is Ibadan where he will be distributing sanitary pads to school students.
Padman Africa is another group of Nigerian warriors against period poverty in the country.
Run by young advocates, Padman Africa is a non-profit group which describes itself as a “clearing house for menstrual movement working with other menstrual hygiene advocates by changing the narratives around pads, making men in menstruation matter and providing care to those in need.”
The group not only distribute pads free, it also educates teenage boys and girls on menstrual hygiene management. It has reached out to over 2000 girls across the country.
HEALTH EXPERTS SPEAK ON IMPACT OF USE OF NON-SANITARY PRODUCTS
Mr Olufunmilayo, who warned against the use of cotton wool, explained that the materials can get stuck in the body and induce an infection which if serious enough can cause Sepsis (Septicemia) that may lead to death.
He further stressed that while Tampon is made out of cotton wool, it is NOT the same thing as just buying cotton wool balls and pushing them up into the vagina hoping it will serve the same purpose.
“This is too risky, too dangerous and is highly discouraged,” he said.
Imran Morhason-Bello, a honourary consultant at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University College Hospital Ibadan, agreed.
“It is not good. Most people who use tissue, push them into the vagina and when it is inserted inside, it does not allow blood to flow out properly and that blood is a good culture medium for bacterial infection.
“It then causes dissemination of infection into the blood and when the blood is infected, the person will likely get infected with Septicemia. They could go into shock too,” he said.
Septicemia is a serious bloodstream infection. It’s also known as blood poisoning. Septicemia occurs when a bacterial infection elsewhere in the body, such as the lungs or skin, enters the bloodstream.
“A lot of people also use cloth, that is also dangerous. Because the cloth is not sterilised, it could harbor bacteria and they could get infection. And these repeated infections can affect the uterus and on a long term, cause infertility,” he added.
WHAT MUST BE DONE
Umeh Augustine, a public analyst, said the government should partner with some organisations, considering the fact that these companies are privately owned.
“Same way they shared free condoms when sensitising on HIV, they could get some to make donations which will be shared in rural schools. They could also hold discussions with these companies to know what some would want in exchange. Maybe a tax break. But we were talking about reducing tax of sanitary pads because that will reduce the cost of production and ultimately price of products,” he said.
He said judging from the fact that the average Nigerian lives below $1 per day, the price of sanitary pads should be reduced to perhaps N100.
Mr Augustine, who is part of the #EndThe9jaTaxOnPads campaign, also condemned the stigmatisation that some teenage girls face during their period as he said the girl child should be made to know that what happens to her is a normal thing, and anyone who is trying to stigmatise it is unreasonable.
Just like him, many other groups and individuals have urged the federal government as well as Nigerian citizens to bring an end to period poverty in the country. While many say menstrual hygiene products in boarding schools should be free, the others believe parents should sensitise both male and female children on menstrual hygiene management.
In May 2018, participants in Nigeria who joined the rest of the world to commemorate the 2018 Menstrual Hygiene Day decried lack of proper menstrual hygiene management as a result of inadequate water and sanitation facilities which they explained, has an adverse effect on the health and education of adolescent girls.
Menstrual Hygiene Day was started by WASH United in 2014 to build awareness of the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management plays in helping women and girls reach their full potentials.
It is, however, heart-warming to see that this battle to end period poverty is not just by the women alone but the men also.