The global theme for Menstrual Hygiene Day 2023 is: #WeAreCommitted. Girl Guides and Girl Scouts will join forces to stand up for menstruators worldwide, breaking down stigma and barriers to help create a world where no-one is held back because they have periods.
To understand more about why education and advocacy on Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) is critical for girls, we’ve spoken to two experts who have both been involved in WAGGGS’ MHH projects. Helga Mutasingwa from Tanzania, a medical doctor and advocate for girls' and women's health and Iyanuoluwa Sonde, a Girl Guide from Nigeria, who is the founder of the fast-rising organization “Iyanu Reusable Pad Empowerment Project” (IRPEP) that focuses on eradicating period poverty.
“In Madagascar I met a friend who told me about her village where there was a lack of sanitation and girls would have to use cow dungs as sanitary products, which has health implications and can cause infections. This really hit me deep and ignited my passion to advocate for menstrual hygiene. I also read about girls sleeping on the floor for 5 days and being in distress because they couldn’t afford to buy menstrual products. I thought a lot about these girls. When I came back to Nigeria, I worked on creating a reusable pad, training girls on how to make these pads and found a way to distribute these products to NGOs to try put an end to period poverty.
I want to help spread the message that a period is not a limitation and just because you’re menstruating this doesn’t mean you can’t things. However, there are factors that prevent girls from achieving good menstrual health and hygiene such as a lack of awareness in girls before they start menstruating. There are also cultural elements attached to having a period. For example, in Madagascar the word menstruation means ‘taboo’ and in Nigeria you aren’t allowed to attend a sacrifice if you are menstruating. This is why it’s so important that we curb this problem through education and enlighten society that menstruation is natural - and encourage countries who have taxes on sanitary products to remove this to make products affordable. In schools there are not enough adequate facilities to help girls menstruate hygienically and this is limiting them. To combat this, governments and NGOs need to support and come up with solutions and we need to educate communities on how cultural norms are affecting girls.
To me the theme #WeAreCommitted refers to taking action and getting to the root of menstrual hygiene issues and solving them. It means prioritising support for girls. A good example of this can be seen in Spain who give out free menstrual products and Kenya are removing taxes on menstrual products. Other countries should follow suit. Some places have also started to offer menstrual leave (paid leave off work). If the government shows commitment, it will make things much easier for other organisations to do the same. Lastly, celebrating Menstrual Hygiene Day is a way of showing commitment and raising awareness”.
In this image you can see an explanation of how to use and maintain reusable Pads to the women in the Odo-Ijesha community during one of the MHM rural outreach done by Iyanu Reusable Pad Empowerment Project (IRPEP).
This picture shows the distribution of reusable Pads to Secondary Schoolgirls in the rural area of Kajola community, Nigeria.
“My passion to improve menstrual health and hygiene started when I saw there was discomfort around talking about it. At medical school I had a platform to educate and engage people on MHM. An achievement of mine was when I volunteered at medical camps and ensured girls were getting educated on menstrual hygiene. I also worked as part of a team at WAGGGS at a side event in Tanzania where I was able to engage with chief commissioners and use our resources to fundraise for girls. Currently, I still work at medical camps and lobby for people to fund reusable sanitary pads.
I think there are multiple factors which stop girls from having good menstrual health and hygiene. Firstly, menstruation being a taboo and the beliefs of communities such as no one else being allowed to know if a girl is on their period. Also, the challenge and struggle of buying sanitary products. As I was growing up, even girls who had the money to buy pads wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so if the shopkeeper was male. Poverty also has a part to play where girls have to use materials that should never be used as a sanitary product. Girls can struggle mentally with having to menstruate every month, when there are no conversations being had around what is happening to them.
When it comes to menstrual hygiene education girls are the experts of their own experiences and we can use the WAGGGS model to understand their experiences and struggles. I think it’s important that not just girls are educated but men too, and teachers need to be taught the best way to deliver information on the subject. Community action is vital as we need to speak with people who practice cultural taboos. It is the small activities that you do which generate a bigger impact.
Through the WAGGGS and WASH United ‘Rosie’s World’ programme, I have seen girls become experts in menstrual hygiene, and this is purely from the WAGGGS method of learning for example creating songs and still having fun whilst they are learning. I saw at the African Regional Conference a lot of interest in this ongoing issue. We must send the message that issues need to be addressed and we need to eradicate the tax with menstrual products.
For me, the phrase #WeAreCommitted means it’s not just about saying but committing by doing. Actions speak louder than words. Contributing by creating awareness and talking about it. Commitment is not just verbal it’s about taking action and it’s a personal responsibility. Whether it’s girls committing to learn more about menstrual hygiene, boys committing to not discriminate against girls or elders committing to teach their children. It's important at a leader, community, and family level. Individual Girl Guides are showing great commitment as well as WAGGGGS Member Organisations through the activities being done in communities. We also have our allies like WASH United and some governments are committed by providing sanitary products in school. I hope that at a national level, ministers will commit to enacting change.”
These pictures were taken during the Africa region conference in Dar es Salaam when Helga was presenting on the activities implemented in multiple countries under the MHM Programme funded by Wash United.
How does WAGGGS support MHH?
WAGGGS’ MHH work is based on a programme called Rosie’s World created by WASH United, tailored to the Girl Guiding/Girl Scouting context in 2019. The YESS Girls’ Movement has led the Africa Region in delivering the programme and since then WAGGGS has been able to record successes impacting over 100,000 girls directly and indirectly in the Africa region and beyond. Girls learn through fun and friendly activities to look after their menstruation in a safe, hygienic way with confidence. As well as this, girls take the lead, sharing what they have learned with their friends, and take action in their communities whether through peer training, online campaigns or making reusable pads. WAGGGS is very keen to work with new partners to expand within Africa and beyond, to better meet the huge need for MHH education to achieve gender equality.