Sanitary towels or sanitary pads is a fundamental basic right for girls and women. The subject has been an issue for girl’s education in many developing countries, Somali being one them. After interviewing several girls in and out of school, women, parents, pharmacist and shop attendants, I was able to come up with up with this eye-opening article of how sanitary towels are perceived and insights on how they are used in the community.
Effects of Sanitary towels on daily lives of Somali girls and women
Some girls and their families are not aware of sanitary towels and how to use them especially those from rural areas. Most of the sanitary pads are sold in the shops and pharmacies yet this is not well distributed in rural areas. International companies advertise their sanitary towels on TV and radios to reach more audience and attract customers to buy their products, however, these channels are not accessible or reliable to those in the rural settlements. Most of the teachers in schools are male and they cannot teach female students about menstrual cycle and usage of sanitary towels.
People in rural villages and pastoralists communities and some living in the urban centres have little or no awareness, less information and knowledge in regards to sanitary towels while some cannot access or afford the sanitary pads.
The most affected are girls who have undergone type 3 female genital mutilation (FGM) also known as pharaonic tend to experience less bleeding, therefore, don’t see the use of sanitary towels. According to WHO (2006) findings, more blood stays inside the female uterus thus leads to infections, miscarriage and some complaint of constant back pain.
Fatuma, not her real name said ‘’ In primary and secondary schools, we have religious education sessions and mostly obligated to touch the holy book (Quran) and because it’s a mandatory course to attend we sometimes find it hard to tell the teachers we are on menstrual cycle and cannot touch the holy book. We occasionally, avoid being laughed at by boys when they see us not touch the book because they will automatically relate to us being on menstrual cycle. I feel that we have less female teachers and therefore the male teachers just assume we are all okay all the time and we just go with the flow.’’
Some girls said that those who have especially undergone FGM have to endure extreme pain every month during their menstrual which causes them to miss school 2 to 4 days every month, others mentioned having mood swings hence got angry to their fellow students and teachers, some lost appetite while others end up showing signs of restlessness due to anger and frustration caused by the pain. Some girls are affected physiologically and tend to stay alone and restrict their movements, while others become less active in class. These also made most of them prefer staying at home the whole day until their menstrual cycle is over hence missing out completely on schooling.
Sanitary towels and self-esteem
Girls find it hard to share the news of their first menstrual with their mothers until several months past because they found it shameful and embarrassing. The other reason is that parents don’t educate their girls about the events, therefore, hard for girls to open up when it occurs this being a whole new and unexpected experience.
Some girls would hide their menstrual cycle for fear of being shamed by their peers. As they become topics of discussion and attention and are exposed to bullying by their fellow student’s, their esteem lowers and depression leads them to drop out of school.
Some of the girls mentioned that they fear to go to shops or pharmacies to buy sanitary towels, therefore, they either cover their faces with a veil or send their small sisters to go buy for them. Some believe its shame and avoid to be identified when buying. Almost all the girls interviewed felt shy and reluctant to answer some of the questions in relation to sanitary towels.
Sanitary towels and Somali society
Most of the girls and women that use sanitary towels are mostly educated and live in urban centres. Some women living in urban setting said that they don’t use sanitary pads because of the perception that pads bring about infections and are uncomfortable. Most of the time not many people don’t talk about menstrual cycles and sanitary towels, while some have heard of it but have very little knowledge of the process and the materials being used.
As Fatuma recalls one day when her aunt was moving out from her old home and she gave her cousin (Hasna) of 34 years old several sanitary pads to use. Her cousin had never used the sanitary pads but used pieces of cloths only. The cousin asked her colleague to show her how to use the pads assuming the girl had experience using the towels being in upper primary. Unfortunately, Hasna was misadvised and wore the sanitary towel in a wrong manner. The situation was awkward and Hasna complained for 2 days feeling uncomfortable and finally gave up using the pads. This happened due to lack of information and awareness on the use of sanitary towels. Hasna later learnt to use sanitary towels at a friend’s place and was flabbergasted and busted to laughter after remembering the worst advice given by her colleagues before.
Availability of Sanitary towels
One pack of sanitary towel cost $1 and the girls interviewed said that they mostly save their breakfast money for the school to buy sanitary towels at the end month because they were scared to ask their parents for sanitary towel money. Some took towels on loan from their neighbour’s shops and paid slowly later on. Those with a good family background mentioned they could afford pads as they require while those from poor and underprivileged communities, internally displaced and some living below $1, found it challenging for them to afford or buy sanitary towels.
Some NGOs have come forward to support and provide both locally made re-usable and disposal sanitary kits to girls in schools and in vulnerable settings. Some of the NGOs include GECPD in Galkayo and CISP. Their projects on provision of sanitary towels have targeted the most vulnerable community especially the internally displaced for some years.
The Somali government and in this particular case, Puntland Government especially the ministry of education has tried to support and provide sanitary towels to girls in school. However, the same initiatives need to be done to all schools including those in the villages. The government also needs to provide awareness and education of sanitary pads to both teachers and students to improve both learning conditions of the schools and empower girls.
There are no local manufacturers of sanitary towels but several NGOs including GECPD have initiated new projects of developing available, reusable and sustainable sanitary towels for girls in Somalia. The reusable pads have proved its usefulness to the girls and have also created job opportunities for vulnerable women’s over the years now. The reusable sanitary towels were provided to GBV survivors, internally displaced, women who gave births at MCHs among others. The projects are very useful but cannot reach many of those who really need the service, therefore, government, the local business people, women activist foundations and other international community should join hands and support the initiatives. I also came across a friend who started up a menstrual cap for women which is cheaper and sustainable and should be one of the interventions to be considered with the agencies dealing with the provision of sanitary towels.
The government can continue to employ more female teachers in schools and train them on the usage of sanitary towels/hygiene measures. Schools should frequently provide awareness on the use of sanitary towels to girls in schools. Government, religious leaders and donors should support women and NGOs through advocacy and awareness to end FGM, promote usage of Sanitary towels including coming up with more manufacturing centres and produce more sanitary towels to reach as many girls as possible within the rural settings including the pastoralist communities. Provision of comfortable sanitary towels to girls and women should be prioritized. It affects women and girls productivity every single month if not managed well.
The menstrual cycle is not a choice and many girls and women out there are struggling because they cannot access affordable sanitary pads. Therefore we should all join forces to advocate and campaign to support our fellow girls and women be happy, confident and most importantly proactive in our society by providing free sanitary towels sustainable solutions.
By: Bisharo Ali Hussein.