One afternoon in 2007 as we were handing out food donations to needy households, a poor single mother brought her daughter to us for counseling. Her daughter had bled through the rag she had improvised for sanitary pad, the blood permeated to her dress showing a reddish patch, when boys saw this they laughed and shouted that she has an indicator- in other words a blinking light. Likewise, girls laughed at her and gossiped about her. According to her, this was very traumatizing and she vowed never to return to that school, she was done with education. She walked around face down covered with shame and loss of dignity. We spoke with her and provided her with a single packet of sanitary pads. The following month she turned up again and our team contributed about half a dollar and bought her another packet. On the third month she showed up with five friends all in the same predicament, her friends had been suffering in silence. This is how our program to ensure poor young women get sustainable menstrual hygiene supplies in Kenya was born – an initiative conceived and spearheaded by men.
All over the world menstruation is regarded as a woman-only issue, yet we all agree that without menstruation there is no life. The normal biological monthly occurrence which is normal and healthy has been piled-up with a lot of undeserved shame. This deception depicting menstruation as woman-only issue is something we must all address. In many places all over the world, menstruation is still an issue that is surrounded by a lot of stigma, and often men who dare to talk about this subject speak in whispers because they fear to be classified as weak and not man enough. I want to give example with my own case. I am a person who has been misunderstood and been called many names to some extent some people speculation whether I am really straight because I talk about menstruation with a lot of passion.
How Men Can Help
However, our efforts alone are not enough. There are more men engaging in the campaign to ensure women, however poor, get menstrual hygiene supplies. However, if we are to make a meaningful impact, we need to engage more men and bring on board more men to address the problem. I want to thank my friend and colleague Radha Karnard for appreciating and pointing out men who have made significant contribution in meeting menstruation hygiene needs of disadvantaged women. In her article titled Menstrual Men. Additionally, there is a very interesting piece by Huffington post titled Famous Men Who Support Women and this too helps break down the misconception that when men stand up for feminine issues they are weak or cannot be straight.
When I did a research on feminism by men, I found that there are a good number of men actively engaged in menstrual hygiene issues, gender based violence, et cetera. However, their roles mostly end with activism.
My instinct tells me that if we are to achieve a sustainable change we need to engage men who are policy makers and men in high positions. We need policy change to make it an obligation of governments to provide for menstrual supplies as a priority just like other basic needs. We also need policies to compel county and local governments to provide measures for proper disposal of menstrual waste. In many school playgrounds and villages in sub-Saharan Africa, one is likely to stumble on a used sanitary pad which poses danger to human health and the environment. When it rains all this waste is washed up in our rivers and oceans creating pollution and therefore if we are at all serious about promoting sustainable development we should start to walk the talk. We therefore need more than activism; we need to engage men in decision-making positions and make them aware of these issues and help find ways to convince them to deliberate on crafting policies backed by national laws to address them.
Educating boys about menstruation
There is another important factor which I learnt while chatting with my friend Cheri Coleman, she said and I quote her “Of course boys will be boys and there will always be those who find “funny” what they are most uncomfortable about…but as an educator that is where you might consider starting…I think in biology lessons, menstruation should be taught early enough to ages 9-11 and not only to girls but boys as well”
I happen to concur with my friend Cheri, I too believe if boys are taught about menstruation it will help demystify the subject and they will grow to become men who embrace the importance of menstruation in pro-creation.
And if schools do not teach on menstruation then it is also an obligation of parents and guardians to educate their children on periods. In the moment where parents find this a difficult topic to talk comfortably about they can take advantage of many resources online, parents should stop burying their heads in the sand and rise above shying from reality. See a sample YouTube video educating on menstruation.
Proper disposal of menstrual waste
I also want to highlight the issue of proper disposal of menstrual waste. You will notice, even with best laws and systems in place without self discipline all is vanity, there also seems to be an issue of lack of awareness. I have been to villages where there are pit latrines where you expect one to dispose a used sanitary pad but there is a higher likelihood that you stumble on used sanitary pads in open fields or trash bins, seeming to be oblivious to the fact that these are not bio-degradable waste. It brings to mind the words of former US President, John F Kennedy, “and so fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”