Despite grappling with poverty that reduces their access to quality education, girls from Geita District in Tanzania are disheartened by social taboos that haunt their educational development and expose them to menstrual health problems.
A 10-day survey conducted in the area revealed that girls and women from Sukuma and Kuria in Geita are not allowed to speak about their menstrual cycle to anyone.
“It is a taboo for girls and women from the Kuria tribe to reveal anything concerning their personalities, especially their menstrual cycles as it is against our cultural beliefs,” says one Maria Stephano, a traditional woman from Geita District.
Miss Stephano says that if a girl or woman reveals issues concerning her menstrual cycle to others, it brings shame to her family and the public assumes that the girl or the woman is undisciplined.
As a result, the girls from the Kuria follow the rule and have their menstrual period in silence.
Lucy Chacha (not her real name) is among the girls from Kuria tribe in Geita, who suffers the stigma surrounding menstrual health issues.
“My grandmother told me not to talk to anybody about my menstrual period as it is against our cultural beliefs,” she says.
Even when at school, Lucy finds it difficult to share with her school matron or teachers but often times during her menstrual period sneaks out of her classroom or lies to her teachers so she can be released from school.
For her, it is better to have her monthly cycle at home.
“When my menstrual cycle starts while I am at school, I leave immediately to avoid embarrassment,” she narrates.
Lucy has to spend four to five-days at home during her menstrual cycles.
A UNESCO report estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle.
By some estimates, this equals to as much as twenty per cent of a given school year.
One Noelia Nestory, a female teacher at Lwamgasa Primary School in Geita District says that social taboos related to menstrual health are an underlying challenge of education for many girls in schools.
She said many girls miss classes for days and others drop out of schools as they fail to cope with the stigma they encounter with regards to their menstrual cycles.
“As a school, we face many challenges related to menstrual health and sanitary products.
Social taboos take the lead, as the majority of girls cannot reveal information about their monthly period or other related private matters.
They simply vanish from school and only come back after four to five days,” she says.
“We have 48 girls enrolled in Standard Seven alone, but a quarter of them go missing from class for four to five days a week due to menstrual related problems,” she continues, “Social taboos related to menstrual is the lead problem.”
According to Human Rights Watch, 2017 Report titled, ‘I had a dream’ more than 40 per cent of Tanzania’s adolescents have left out of quality lower-secondary education despite the government’s positive decision to make lower-secondary education free.
Even at home, many girls find it difficult to share their menstrual stories with their parents.
They prefer to be silent and use unsafe materials for their menstrual period such as pieces of cloth.
“My mother only taught me how to handle my menstrual cycles using ‘Pieces of Kangas’ and bed sheets she provided me the first day I started my monthly period,” says Lucy.
The 13-year old girl, now in standard six at Lwamgasa Primary School, uses the pieces from torn bed sheets and clothes during their monthly period.
A 2017 report commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) indicated that stigma and misinformation surrounding menstruation are contributing to serious human rights concerns for women and girls in the world.
It further says that taboos, powerfully undermine the well-being of women and girls, making them vulnerable to gender discrimination, child marriage, exclusion, violence, poverty and untreated health problems.
It is on this basis that women’s rights advocates call for access to adequate information, preparation, and support with which to manage menstruation in a healthy, safe and dignified manner.
Member of Parliament (MP) and a gender equality activist Ms Lorensia Bukwimba says menstrual health management focuses too much on supplying sanitary products but not addressing underlying challenges.
“As we provide the sanitary facilities, we should also focus on imparting education and awareness to girls and women on proper management of their menstrual health and should not feel shame or stigma when menstruating,” she says.
The government of Tanzania recently banned the tax imposed on sanitary pads in order to help girls and women have access to sanitary towels, but experts feel that the majority of girls and women do not use them due to lack of information.
Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA) suggested the creation of religious and community leaders forums to create awareness on menstrual health.
“Having such forums in every community will help eradicate taboos, stigma and misconceptions about menstrual health management,” says Eda Sanga, the Director of the association.
She says that many women and girls Africa have inadequate sanitary products, disposal systems and information, because of the taboos and stigma imposed by the community and religious leaders.
“There is this emphasis on pads.
Generally, the development sector wants quick fixes and it seems so easy to give pads to girls and then have a solution to the problem, but the reality is so much more complex and without addressing that we will not see real change,” says a global expert on human rights.
We should care about MHM because it can further social and economic empowerment and growth.
It can also contribute to achieving a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including, though not limited to; quality education, gender equality and the concept of clean water and sanitation.
It is vital for policymakers, activists and the government to take concerted efforts to eradicate the social and cultural taboos related to menstruation among women and adolescent girls to ensure the well-being of women.
It is time to galvanize action towards ending violence against women and girls in Tanzania and the world.