"I got my period." Actually, this is a harmless phrase, but it's rarely uttered with such directness. Even in a liberal society like ours, where girls and boys learn about the physical changes in puberty in 4th grade at school and are thus prepared, the subject of menstruation is associated with shame and embarrassment. However, while in Germany PMS or menstruation itsself are sometimes the reason for exemption from sport or a postponed maths exam, for many girls in the Global South this often means the sudden end of their time at school and thus a disadvantageous minus of their formal education.
Studies show that one-fifth of girls drop out of school as soon as they get their first period and more than two-thirds miss up to three days of school each month because there is no opportunity to wash themselves, change their sanitary towels or because they cannot afford any hygiene products. Due to the high rate of absenteeism, many girls are forced to drop out of school, or they drop out because they are missing more and more classes and are not able to keep up.
For us as a humanitarian organisation with a focus on WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) it is therefore central to address the topic of menstrual hygiene again and again - in our usual project work, but also in the form of raising awareness, such as on the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day, which has been held on 28th May every year since 2014. It was initiated by the Berlin-based organization WASH United, which mobilizes an extensive network every year to put the subject of menstruation on the agenda.
"Our aim is to ensure that girls nowhere in the world have to be ashamed of their period", explains Dana Ritzmann, head of communications at arche noVa."We want to ensure that the necessary conditions are created so that girls and young women can go to school without interruption." This includes, for example, the construction of gender-separated toilets and washing facilities in educational institutions, as well as the distribution of hygiene articles and health training courses on the female cycle and protection against infections. The latter is particularly relevant in times of corona, because pandemics do not stop for periods. But knowledge protects against illness in any case, just like water and soap.
All these mentioned components were part of a cooperation project, which arche noVa was able to realise in Somalia last year together with the Somali organisation ASEP (Action for Social and Economic Progress) and the Polish aid organisation PAH.
Within the project, 15 schools in Adado, Dhusamareeb, Belet Hawa as well as in the regions of Bardeere and Kisimayo were equipped with gender-separated latrines with lockable doors, wash basins and drying racks for washed sanitary towels, which are used by about 850 girls. In addition, a good 1500 hygiene packs with sanitary towels were distributed in the schools. Parallel to the construction work and distribution, statistics were kept on how the presence of the schoolgirls changed as a result of the new toilet blocks.
That there has definitely been some improvement, confirms Nimo Mohamed Umar. The 29-year-old woman works as an environmental educator at Samtec College, a kind of vocational school on the outskirts of Belet Hawa Town.
"For many of our girls, the period is always associated with shame and guilt, with stigmatization and superstition, all of which together often lead to not attending classes during menstruation. Especially when there is no clean water at school to wash and dry themselves and their hygiene materials or to go to the toilet at all without being disturbed."
With the current project many things have improved at her school. There is now a safe place with running water where the girls can manage their monthly hygiene with dignity. That is worth a lot. There are also regular training sessions on women's health.
The 29-year-old Nimo, herself a mother of four children, was one of 45 teachers of 15 schools in Belet Hawa, Kismayu and South Bardeere who have been trained as trainers since March 2019 and now educate about menstrual hygiene and health care at their own institutions. This is about basic biological knowledge, but also about getting rid of stigmata and misbelief.
"Our girls become much more self-confident through the knowledge they have acquired and because of the new sanitary facilities. They can now concentrate much better on their classes because they no longer have to worry about their monthly hygiene," says Nimo Mohamed Umar happily for her students. "Now they can realise their dreams, learn something and thus work for the good of their communities."
In addition to the gender-separated sanitary facilities in the schools, 30 new women-friendly latrines were built in five villages in the Bardeere region, thus improving the daily lives of around 300 families, particularly girls and women.
In fact, clean toilets and hand washing facilities are actually a matter of course, or at least should be everywhere in the world. Menstruation without hesitation and without unnecessary worries about adequate hygiene should not be a luxury, not in Somalia, not in other low-income countries - and not in Germany either. Despite successful petitions for the reduction of the VAT rate on monthly hygiene, sanitary pads and tampons are not considered to be basic necessities, but rather as a kind of luxury item that is regularly taxed at 19 percent.
In order to draw attention to such and other grievances in connection with the topic of menstrual hygiene, we need the Mestrual Hygiene Day on 28th May. As a matter of principle we see red this week and report every day in our social media channels about interesting actions and innovative ways to make "the days" as pleasant as possible for all girls and women in the world. Period.
- Gastkommentar von Mathias Anderson in der Mittelbayrischen Zeitung zum Menstrual Hygiene Day: https://www.mittelbayerische.de/politik-nachrichten/das-tabu-regelblutung-brechen-21771-art1910976.html
- Interview zum Tag der Menstruationshygiene für den Blog "Von Ocker und Rot": https://www.vonockerundrot.com/de/blog/post/menstruation-unter-erschwerten-bedingungen-interview-mit-archenova-zum-menstrual-hygiene-day