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Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Crisis of Menstrual Hygiene in Africa

Sanitary Hygiene
Menstrual pad

Menstruation is a natural and healthy process that affects millions of women and girls around the world. However for many, especially in Africa, it is also a source of stigma, discrimination, and health risks. Lack of access to affordable and sustainable menstrual hygiene products, education, and services is one of the main challenges that women and girls face during their menstrual cycle.

According to the World Bank, only a fraction of women and girls in developing countries use sanitary products during menstruation. The rest rely on improvised materials such as cloth rags, paper, leaves, or even sand. These alternatives are often unhygienic, uncomfortable, and ineffective, leading to infections, odors, leaks, and stains. Moreover, they can limit the mobility, participation, and dignity of women and girls in various aspects of life, such as education, work, and social activities.

Sanitary products are often expensive and unaffordable for many women and girls who live in poverty or have low incomes. For example, in Ghana, where the government increased taxes on sanitary products in 2023, a woman earning a minimum wage of $26 a month would have to spend $3, or roughly 15% every dollars they earn to buy two packets of sanitary towels containing eight pads. This significant portion of their income could be used for other basic needs such as food, water, or health care.

Sanitary products are often scarce or unavailable in rural areas or remote locations where there is limited infrastructure, transportation, or distribution networks. Women and girls may have to travel long distances or pay high prices to access them. Alternatively, they may have to depend on donations or handouts from NGOs or charities that are not always reliable or sufficient.

Adequate information and education about menstrual hygiene management (MHM), including the types, use, disposal, and benefits of sanitary products can also be found lacking. Many face myths, misconceptions, and taboos surrounding menstruation, preventing them from seeking or using sanitary products. For instance, some cultures believe that menstruation is a curse, a sign of impurity, or a cause of bad luck. As a result, women and girls may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or fearful of using sanitary products or talking about their needs with others.

Many women and girls have limited access to supportive environments and services that can facilitate their MHM. For example, they may not have access to clean water, soap, toilets, waste disposal facilities, or privacy at home, school, work, or public places. They may also face harassment, discrimination, or violence from people who mock, tease, or abuse them because of their menstruation. Furthermore, they may not have access to health care providers who can offer them advice or treatment for any menstrual-related problems.

These challenges have serious implications for the health, education, empowerment, and well-being of women and girls in Africa. According to UNICEF, poor MHM can increase the risk of reproductive tract infections (RTIs), urinary tract infections (UTIs), cervical cancer, infertility, anemia, and other complications. It can also affect the attendance and performance of girls at school as they may miss classes or drop out due to pain, discomfort, fear of leakage or staining. Additionally, it can limit the opportunities and choices of women and girls in terms of employment, entrepreneurship, social participation, and human rights.

Inflation and rising cost of living is also a direct factor contributing to the issue. African governments could reduce or eliminate taxes on sanitary products to make them more affordable for women and girls. They can also subsidise the production or distribution of sanitary products to lower their prices. Alternatively, they can provide free or subsidized sanitary products to women and girls who are poor, vulnerable, or marginalised.

Manufacturers of sanitary products could also produce more locally-made, biodegradable, earth-friendly, and quality sanitary products that can meet the needs of users in different contexts. They can partner with local

distributors, retailers, or community-based organisations to ensure that sanitary products are accessible for all.