What do young people know about menstruation? What happens when periods occur? How do girls behave? How do people around view the girls during this time? In order to get answers to these questions, my fellow young reporters and I went to meet older girls and boys in a number of schools in the city of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
What are periods ?
The subject of menstruation remains a taboo subject. Very few parents, families or schools talk about it with children, who ask their closest friends about it. For most girls, periods involve a flow of blood that occurs every month, although often they do not know why. Most of the boys we met knew almost nothing on the subject.
By asking friends or asking about it on the street, children are at the mercy of misinformation and misleading stories that lead to girls being stigmatised. Choisie, 14, told us that when her periods come, her family forbids her from touching the kitchen utensils. The young girl has to stay away from the places where food is prepared and has to even avoid being in contact with other people. “During your period, you are dirty and the flow of blood can bring bad luck to the people who touch you,” her family explained to her.
In rare cases, parents prepare their daughters for menstruation. Some boys are even informed about how they need to behave to make their sisters feel comfortable during this time. Menstruation is a natural phenomenon that occurs in every girl’s body and so we must talk.
And when periods happen at school?
During their periods, many girls stop going to school. The cleanliness of the toilet facilities does not allow them to change and some not well informed boys do not hesitate to remark “Ugh! She is dirty,” when a girl has her period. In order to avoid this kind of embarrassment and mockery, many girls refuse to go to school during their periods. This reality has negative consequences on young girls’ education. When you consider that periods lasts on average 5 days per month, every month, you can imagine the impact on a girl’s academic performance.
“I’m never going to stop going to school because I have my period,” said one of the girls I interviewed. She is studying at one of the few schools that has taken steps to ensure that girls are not caught out when periods occur. Sanitary towels are made available and the toilet facilities allow girls to get changed. Unfortunately, there are very few schools like this. In most cases, girls are left to fend for themselves, resorting to unsafe protection such as fabrics or old clothes; sanitary towels being too expensive. At the risk of getting infections girls use these fabrics to keep themselves clean and avoid being mocked.
It is time to act!
Menstruation is still a taboo subject in society and leads to the stigmatisation of young girls. This biological and natural phenomenon prevents girls from blossoming and leading their lives. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to health information (Article 24) and to regular schooling (Article 28). The privacy and honour of each child must be respected (Article 16), but the manner in which menstrual hygiene is treated leads to multiple violations of children’s rights.
On the occasion of World Menstrual Hygiene Day, I call on all Congolese to act NOW and EFFECTIVELY:
- Parents need to break the taboos within the family and initiate conversations and discussions about menstruation with their children, both girls and boys. All children need to be well prepared in order to avoid having inaccurate and misleading information on the issue.
- School heads need to take all necessary steps to ensure that girls can continue their schooling normally during the menstruation period. Toilet facilities, with separate toilets for girls and boys including a shower, need to be built to allow girls to change safely whilst preserving their privacy.
- Communication campaigns need to be put in place to raise awareness and inform widely and appropriately on the subject of menstruation. The community needs to adopt good attitudes to avoid stigmatising girls during menstruation.
Menstruation is not just a matter for women but a reality in society. It is time to act!
Kindly translated from French by Daphne Wood