In Niger, it is not uncommon to hear that if a menstruating woman touches sowing seeds, the harvest will not be abundant; that a woman must not braid her sister during menstruation, otherwise she will induce hair loss; that menstruation is a woman’s business and a man must not talk about it — the numerous rumors about menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) tend to stigmatize women and girls.
It is in this extremely sensitive context that UNICEF is committed to supporting the government in building MHH knowledge and skills in schools. This is needed because being able to safely manage menstrual health contributes to a girl’s development and dignity. It has an impact on education, health and overall well-being.
We have always been told that talking about sex is an incentive to debauchery. Talking about menstrual hygiene at home with my sisters is really difficult for me
In addition to the development of training tools, UNICEF Niger’s approach was to train teachers as well as identify and train girl leaders from each school who would then share their knowledge with other adolescent girls.
Training the trainers addressed both men and women — supervisors and coordinators of water, sanitation and hygiene projects — experienced in promoting good WASH practices. The trainers came from the Government’s technical services (Ministries of Water and Sanitation, Public Health, Primary Education and Community Development) and ten national and international NGOs, partners of UNICEF in the implementation of the (ASWA II) funded by the United Kingdom Government (DFID).
Challenging social norms
The theoretical phase of the training focused on using techniques and tools to overcome the silence around MHH, recognize and confront unfounded rumours, and promote MHH in schools. The intention was to break the silence of these men and women who are used to promoting WASH best practices.
However, in the training room, there was real discomfort and reluctance among several participants who took the floor to share their personal experiences and vision:
- Mr. Tidjani Sadi Issoufou, a young WASH engineer working in an NGO, explains “each society operates according to its own set of values. We have always been told that talking about sex is an incentive to debauchery. Talking about menstrual hygiene at home with my sisters is really difficult for me.”
- “I can’t allow my husband to talk to our daughter about MHH, it’s my role and not his,” said one participant.
- “I’ve been promoting MHH for several years, but at home, it’s my wife who is in charge of talking to our daughters,” added another.
Recalling the first period
Disconcerted by the reluctance in the room, I revisited the memory of my first period and began to share my story. Some of the others did the same. Some men made the case for promotion of MHH by all.
All these testimonies and exchanges underlined the different themes of the workshop and made it possible to:
- highlight the distress of millions of adolescent girls due to ignorance and lack of information about a natural phenomenon called menstruation
- educate participants on the health risks associated with improper care (washing, drying) of sanitary pads
- find ways to respond, both scientifically and in religious terms, to the various rumours about menstruation
- exchange approaches and tips for men who want to talk about menstruation in their families, such as financing or purchasing sanitary pads for teenage girls, the care of sanitary pads primarily drying, participation (even as an observer) in discussions on menstruation between teenagers and their mothers, …
Learning from adolescent girls
The practical phase of the training provided an opportunity to introduce various MHH tools and to listen in on an exchange between adolescent girls from a primary school. This “sensitization session”, conducted by previously trained peer-educator girls, was very edifying. The ease and absence of taboos among these teenage girls discussing MHH helped some participants to break down lingering barriers.
Committing to MHH
In the coming months, these new trainers will promote menstrual health and hygiene for adolescent girls in the nearly 1000 primary schools supported by the ASWA II programme, funded by the British Government and implemented by UNICEF. In each of these schools, peer-educators will be trained, and school officials will set up spaces for dialogue to enable adolescent girls to engage with each other on MHH.
At the end of the training, the enthusiasm was palpable. One participant concluded the training by saying: “I can’t imagine my daughter feeling uncomfortable about something natural simply because she hasn’t been prepared for it… My conscience wouldn’t let me… I’ll talk about it because you have to stop the rumours, you have to break the silence.”
Suzanne Tchutchoua Kameni is a WASH Specialist and Rural Engineer at UNICEF Niger.