Menstrual hygiene management has gained recognition around the world as an important public health issue. Women in low and middle-income countries are often subjected to shame, isolation, and discrimination related to their menstrual cycle. Communities that are not educated about menstruation can view it as a taboo topic, and this lack of awareness can make it more likely for women to struggle in their transition and maintenance of periods. For instance, women in such communities often have to resort to unhygienic and unsafe practices to manage their monthly cycle. Through Women’s Relief Initiative, a nonprofit organization, we were able to contact women in Guinea, a country in West Africa that has struggled with period poverty, to learn more about how women are socially, emotionally, and academically impacted by global menstrual health inequities.
According to the women in Guinea, there is limited availability and access to a variety of menstrual products in their communities. They explained that there is some access to commercial sanitary pads in the capital, but products like tampons are not very popular, and other kinds of menstrual products have not reached the market yet. They elaborated that many girls cannot afford the available sanitary pads and have to resort to towels or pieces of old bed sheets as alternatives. Due to low availability and accessibility, these alternatives have become common practice to avoid paying for expensive products. However there are problems associated with these alternatives including discomfort and friction burns on inner thighs due to chafing from wet non-absorbent material. There can also be difficulties with disposal or washing of these reusable materials. Girls in the village have even less access to the products because the nearest market is miles away and only carries the products once a week. In resource-poor countries, there are many challenges that arise from inadequate menstrual hygiene management including “teasing by peers when accidental menstrual soiling of clothes occurs; poor familial support; lack of cultural acceptance of alternative menstrual products; limited economic resources to purchase supplies; inadequate water and sanitation facilities at school; menstrual cramps, pain, and discomfort; and lengthy travel to and from school, which increases the likelihood of leaks/stains.”
A Guinean woman explained how she and her sisters did not receive any education regarding menstrual hygiene or use of menstrual products. Sex education is also limited, a possible byproduct of the culture of the community labeling menstruation as a taboo topic. Many girls in the community do not know what a period is until they experience it on their own. This leaves many girls unprepared for their first period, often “hav[ing] bad experiences…and suffer[ing] humiliation if it happens in school.” Furthermore, many of the girls in the community are not initially aware of certain long-term effects of periods, which can make self-care during this transition difficult. “I wish I knew that periods [were] irregular…especially when it’s just starting out….and that [experiencing different moods] when on my cycle [is] completely normal,” said one of the Guinean women.
There are noticeable trends regarding how girls are negatively impacted by the lack of awareness and resources for periods in low-resourced communities. Many girls who have high academic rankings in their schools often do poorly in secondary school. The women in Guinea explain how this is due to the fact that many girls fall behind as they struggle to adapt to their periods. Since there has been no system implemented in schools to ease this transition, girls who struggle in school due to this transition are taken out of school by their parents with the intention of getting them married.
When asked what discriminatory attitudes about menstrual cycles exist in the community, we were told that “taboo culture makes it seem like menstrual blood is not a natural thing, but a curse.” Limited awareness and education about menstrual blood allows this belief to persist and dictate social norms. Many women who do not have products to control their menstrual flow end up isolated from society. One way to address this problem is to have “men … be involved and learn about the natural process of the period,” said one Guinean woman.
The Women’s Relief Initiative (WRI) is a nonprofit organization trying to bridge these gaps in resources and education. WRI works to provide sanitary aid that empowers women, sustains the environment, and uplifts under-resourced communities. This mission was initiated in Fall of 2018 by four Guinean students and one Senegalese student at the University of Texas at Austin: Kadija Balde, Mamadou Balde, Fatoumata Diallo, Jenab Camara, and Aminata Toure. They decided that there was not enough advocacy for period poverty for the people of Guinea. The group recognized the privilege of accessible sanitary menstrual products in the United States, and wanted to extend this accessibility to Guinea.
The Women’s Relief Initiative “hopes to ensure that women in under-resourced communities are aware and educated on topics surrounding their menstruation,” said Diallo. Their vision for the future is to prioritize the advocacy and allocation of resources to those who menstruate, hoping to expand beyond Guinea. “We hope to also work with our partners around the world in the fight towards eradicating period poverty,” Diallo said.
By ensuring that more women are educated about their menstrual cycles and have access to menstrual products, WRI hopes that women in low-resource communities will be able to better care for themselves on and off their cycles, decrease their use of unsanitary alternatives, and lower their risk of infection. In addition, better access to menstrual care could have positive effects on education and academics in these communities. WRI hopes their efforts will allow women to feel better equipped and empowered to focus on their education. Through lower rates of disease and higher accessibility to menstrual products, more women are projected to continue their education, decreasing the rates of childhood marriage and allowing these women to further educate their own children.
Diallo reflects on her WRI journey and all the work they have done: “My motto is ‘striving to leave the world a better place than I found it,’ and I am beyond grateful at the fact that [the] Women’s Relief Initiative allows me to fulfill that motto in the best way that I can.”
This piece was written in collaboration with Women’s Relief Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to fight period poverty in under-resourced communities across the globe.
You can learn more about period poverty here.
Featured Illustration by Jeannie Phan