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08/11/19 The Curse

“So, we can just tip it out into the toilet?” One of the girls asked, relieved. The classroom murmured in approval. For many young women, the disposal of sanitary waste was a very real problem. Many were worried that their menstrual blood left on pads, cloth and tissue would be misused for black magic rituals by other community members if not disposed of correctly. Fears that they would be cursed with infertility and bad health many of the women resorted to burying or burning the sanitary products which again was a process that they considered to have other omens. This meant that the sanitary cup was a good solution due to its zero waste quality.

In West Africa, the presence of spirituality and magic is a strong and great part of the culture. The belief that ancestors pass on their wisdom and guide people throughout their lives is a practice that many people consider to be both liberating and healing. However, as much as their roots in spirituality seem to be a positive force, there are also aspects of the belief system that can be altered to ensure that women and girls aren’t subject to health problems or put down as a result. This is why we focus on discussing and resolving these taboos within communities by talking to girls, mothers and grandmothers.

“Madame, my mother said that my father and brother cannot see the menstrual pad” is another remark we sometimes get. Many mothers believed that menstruation is a dirty and shameful process and believe that if others, especially males, bear witness to it then they will be cursed.

For a year 6 class (aged 11-12) only 1/4 of the class knew what a period was prior to the talk. At a junior high school (J.H.S) we visited, of the girls (aged 14-17) 23.4% said that they knew nothing about periods and 20% said that they had never spoken to their mother or their father about it. The perception that the period is a shameful process means that many girls do not get the necessary information prior to their period and thus they not only get scared and ashamed by their menarche, they also do not manage their periods safely. At the same J.H.S 23.9% of the girls said that they knew “nothing” about menstrual hygiene prior to the talk and 21.7% said they only knew “a bit”. This shows the importance of Menstrual Health Management talks to be given in schools. The misconceptions are common and some girls spoke to us of being prohibited of certain actions whilst they are menstruating such as eating sweet foods.

However it is not only in West Africa that taboos like these are common place. In England, people still speak of menstruation as the monthly curse. In Tudor times the period was considered a punishment from God and girls were prohibited from taking any form of pain killers as they felt they had to suffer the burden put on them by God. In villages around the world girls are barred from cooking or bathing as they are seen to be unclean.

Tearing away at taboos is necessary for girls to manage their period safely. It is nearly 2020, a natural bodily process that is a past, present or future for more than half the world’s population can no longer be seen as a topic we shy away from. Full stop. Period.

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