Catherine Makoni / Tajudeen Oyewale
Each year the world commemorates World Menstrual Hygiene Management Day (MHM) on May 28. This is an opportunity for everyone to reflect on this global challenge and to commit to making sure that this most basic and most natural of functions does not become a cause for excluding girls and women from school and other social and economic activities.
This World MHM Day, we must reflect and recommit to harnessing our collective efforts to address the multiple challenges faced by women and girls every day in managing their menstruation with dignity.
This year’s theme Step up action and investment in menstrual hygiene now, is an important one. It recognises that gap in the rhetoric on MHM and we must collectively act now. To effect real change, there is urgent need to commit resources to bring about the desired changes in mindsets and provide appropriate sanitary materials and hygiene education to empower millions of women and girls in Zimbabwe who continue to struggle with period poverty.
In Zimbabwe, period poverty or the struggle many women and girls face in affording sanitary materials and information, as well as the associated cultural stigma and shame is unfortunately a common problem.
In a Unicef study conducted in Zimbabwe, 76% of surveyed girls in both rural and urban schools reported they did not have basic information to help them understand the changes happening in their bodies during adolescence.
In addition, a systematic review of 50 studies on MHM found that dysmenorrhea (period pain), was a major gynaecological complaint of adolescent girls for which many do not seek medical care, but which diminished their quality of life including poorer school attendance. The review also revealed that girls experienced shame, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence due to fear of mismanagement of menstruation.
In some of our communities, women and girls continue to be bound by religious and cultural norms and restrictions including not being allowed to participate in socio-cultural events during their menstrual period as they are considered dirty or unclean. This has the effect of restricting normal daily activities and has a negative effect on mental health and full participation of girls in education.
Perhaps the most critical of the challenges that women and girls continue to face is the shortage of resources to manage menstruation and menstrual pain with dignity. It was found that while critical, these needs go beyond distribution of sanitary pads and other materials to include access to toilets, hand washing facilities and safe disposal of sanitary waste.
Zimbabwe continues to face severe constraints in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, with 70% of rural schools, in a Unicef supported study reported to neither have water nor soap necessary for girls to use while menstruating.
Most rural and urban schools do not have lockable toilet compartments. While 96% of girls in urban areas and 89% in rural areas reported using disposable sanitary materials, there are no containers for disposing used materials, and no supplies for cleaning after toilet use. Often, the facilities are not accessible to girls with disabilities. Majority (77%) of girls from both rural and urban schools reported not having access to private and lockable compartments to change at school.
For girls with disabilities, menstruation can be an even more difficult experience. For some girls, there is no privacy as they need assistance in managing basic hygiene processes.
All these challenges have been compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with lockdowns and restrictions affecting the incomes of many households and affordability of commodities.
The resulting competition for resources has meant period poverty has been exacerbated for many women and girls, especially as control of household resources remains a gendered terrain for many of our communities. In addition, during the lockdown, those girls who would have been able to access school-based MHM resources and materials were not able to do so.
While the challenges remain many, we must applaud the progress made by the government of Zimbabwe towards the realisation of the rights to dignity for women and girls as enshrined in the constitution.
In 2020, the government of Zimbabwe through the Education Amendment Act, legislated the provision of free sanitary materials in schools. In addition, the Finance minister made a budgetary allocation for the procurement of sanitary materials for girls.
These are important steps in addressing the multiplicity of challenges. It is important that government puts in place clear measures to monitor the implementation of government programmes meant to address MHM, particularly with a view to understanding and addressing the experience of the budgetary allocation made to schools.
As we take the opportunity of this day to reflect on progress made in Zimbabwe and the remaining challenges, Unicef continues to partner with other stakeholders to ensure the rights to dignity and to sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and girls are fulfilled.
We echo the urgent call of this year’s theme and urge government and other stakeholders to increase the investment in water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and other commodities for MHM, especially in schools and other institutions, in order to support the rights of women and girls to menstruate with dignity. An increase in budgetary allocations to Wash infrastructure and systems and the education sectors is required, so that no girl is denied the opportunity to learn because her school cannot support her menstrual needs. In this light, Unicef calls on the government of Zimbabwe to continue to provide free sanitary materials to girls, so that period poverty can become a thing of the past.
We call on community leaders and other stakeholders to address social norms and practices that restrict the participation of women and girls in social activities during menstruation and to encourage men and boys, to work hand-in-hand with women and girls to become champions for safe and dignified menstrual health and hygiene.
Unicef will continue to support WASH in Schools interventions, especially in the most deprived communities so that we truly live up to the mantra of the agenda 2030 — to leave no one behind.
It is time for all of us to step up action and invest in menstrual health and hygiene.