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South Africa Making Strides in Women’s Health

by Shelby Hawkins on June 1, 2018

The South African Department of Women and UNFPA organized this week’s Menstrual Health Management Symposium in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the first meeting held in the region.

Government representatives, academics, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, youth groups and other partners were all in attendance to discuss the current state of women’s health.

There is a stigma surrounding menstruation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Young girls often feel shame and embarrassment for such a natural occurrence.

One in ten girls in Africa will miss school at some point during their period.

It is especially difficult for young women living in places that experience extreme poverty because they often lack proper sanitation and toilets. These girls have a social, health and security disadvantage. Girls are more susceptible to assault and unsanitary practices with the absence of toilets, so they miss school.

Having proper washrooms will encourage girls to go to school because they will no longer fear for their safety during a natural time like relieving themselves or getting their period.

Not only that, but giving girls sustainable tools to better equip themselves in maintaining their menstrual health will be a feat for the progression of women. Menstrual health and safety will allow girls to not have to miss class simply for their period.

As a result of that, drop-out rates for girls will decrease and the number of women in higher education and the workforce will likely increase.

Because of this, more than 300 participants were in attendance at the Menstrual Health Management Symposium in order to achieve major goals for feminine health. Some of their objectives include accessibility to sanitary products, dignified treatments and education of menstrual health management. It is “a human rights issue that all of us must strive for,” Bathabile Dlamini, South Africa’s minister of women, said at the symposium.

Lack of education is a major reason why menstruation, and sex in general, is stigmatized. People simply do not know about it, therefore, they do not talk about it. In essence, ignorance begets fear; it is still very much a taboo that girls are forced to hide.

“African sexuality is very much a hidden thing… that perpetuates stigma and discrimination,” said Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, UNFPA’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa. “Access to sexuality education is vital for menstrual literacy but also for self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.”

According to the Menstrual Health Management Symposium website, puberty and menstrual health are linked to a girl’s self-worth, dignity and overall well-being.

As Dlamini said in her speech, this is a human rights issue. Not giving girls what they need for their own health is a type of violence.

Young girls often do not know what is happening to their bodies at the time of maturation, which can be quite scary when proper information is not available. For example, a young girl named Faith recalls how frightened she was the first time she got her period.

“I felt embarrassed to be a girl and felt like it was a punishment,” Faith said, recounting the memory of her first period.

She was at school when it happened. One of her friends showed her how to use a cloth to soak up the blood. “I was not knowledgeable about how and why it happens, and what to expect. So, naturally, I was scared and confused.”

Faith’s lack of understanding of her own body is too common of a thread in Africa and across the globe.

“How do we empower young girls to know that menstruation is not something to be ashamed of?” Dlamini said, “We must stop period shaming in our homes, our schools, our places of worship and all other important spaces in our lives.”


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Shelby Hawkins
My name is Shelby, like the mustang, and I am an avid lover of photography, literature and desserts. I identify as a proud feminist and Pan-Africanist; hopefully that manifests in my writing.