How to break down the stigma and taboo around menstruation

There are very few spaces in which girls can discuss menstruation or ask questions about it. Reuters/Zohra Bensemra

Girls around the world, and particularly in developing countries, dread getting their periods. They can’t access proper sanitary wear and often don’t have underwear to hold pads in place. School bathrooms aren’t clean and hygienic, and some schools don’t have running water so that girls can keep their hands and bodies clean while menstruating. Ahead of Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, The Conversation Africa’s education editor Natasha Joseph chatted to Dr Lindsay Kelland, from South Africa’s Rhodes University, about the Siyahluma Project Group, which is working to change the discussion around menstruation.

When was the Siyahluma Project Group launched and what sparked the idea to establish it?

The initial research group was formed in Grahamstown, South Africa, in late 2013. It was a partnership between the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction Research Unit, the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics and Rhodes University’s Community Engagement office. We conducted a survey of Grade 11 learners in schools in the Eastern Cape province to identify the menstruation-related challenges faced by girls at school.

In 2014 we formed ongoing research partnerships with 24 schools. Surveys were distributed, collected, coded and captured for approximately 1,100 learners. That year we also formed a partnership with five foster mothers who create reusable sanitary kits. That was when Siyahluma, the social enterprise, was born.

We initially heard about problems with access to sanitary products from a participant in the Young Women’s Dialogues at Rhodes’ Community Engagement office. But we knew that we could only sustainably address the problems in our particular context by conducting a needs assessment in the Eastern Cape. There wasn’t much information about these issues. We could only find one study then about menstruation in South Africa. It dealt with a different province, KwaZulu-Natal, and didn’t have anything to do with schools or schoolgirls.

What are the prevailing attitudes towards and ideas about menstruation that you find among young people in the Eastern Cape, where you’re working?

There is so much stigma and a lot of taboo surrounding the topic. This is particularly because of the links between menstruation – and particularly menarche, the onset of menstruation – and sexuality. Girls who completed the survey indicated that they don’t often have these conversations with their mothers because it is inappropriate to talk about sexuality. It’s actually often deemed taboo to speak to men: young girls report wanting to talk to their fathers, boyfriends or male friends to help them understand what is happening to them, but they can’t because of this taboo.

What we found when opening up these spaces in the schools with younger children was that both males and females are keen to talk and learn about menstruation, and they have a lot of questions. A Grade 7 boy at one of the schools actually asked, “Is it real?” – which indicates that these spaces haven’t previously been opened up.

There is a significant amount of secrecy surrounding menstruation in the Eastern Cape, as everywhere, and this expresses itself as a drive to conceal menstruation – again, as is the case everywhere. However, our data shows that the consequences of being “found out” include not only humiliation and shame, but also a very real danger of sexual violation. Girls report not feeling safe using the sanitation facilities at their schools. Sometimes this has to do with the fact that young girls who have begun menstruating, and so have shifted into womanhood, are sexually abused by male peers and teachers.

The project uses theatre to get boys and girls talking openly about menstruation. It’s also introduced modules about menstruation into schools’ curricula, and set up the community sewing group you mentioned. That’s a lot of angles, and perhaps that stems from the multidisciplinary makeup of the group. How important is that multidisciplinary approach to your work?

It’s key. The people who now form the Siyahluma group bring a lot of different skills and resources to the table. We’ve really had to rely on each other’s strengths in bringing everything together, from research skills to community links, theatre skills and curriculum development.

The ability to rely on the members of your team is so central to getting things done and moving forward, especially when this problem is so complex and we need to think up creative ways to tackle it together. Working with this team has been a privilege and people’s enthusiasm at the schools to get involved has been remarkable.

Tell us a bit about the sewing project. How did it come about?

In 2014, a new stakeholder from the community approached the research team. A group of five foster mothers from Grahamstown Child Welfare Services had come together with the idea of starting a social enterprise to produce reusable sanitary products. Our research team decided to partner with this initiative as we’d found that it’s really hard for school-going girls to access modern, reliable, hygienic products affordably.

What comes next for the Siyahluma Project Group? Can its lessons and its successes be extrapolated elsewhere on the continent?

Each “arm” of the project is moving forward. In terms of the research, papers and policy briefs are being written. New masters and honours students are working towards their degrees using and furthering the research that’s already been done.

The initiatives are also moving forward – we’ve formed partnerships with clinics in rural Glenmore and Ndwayana, both in the Eastern Cape. In terms of the social enterprise, a partnership has been formed with Days For Girls International in the US, which goes a long way to ensuring that the enterprise is sustainable in the long term.

Author’s note: The Siyahluma Project Group would like to acknowledge its NGO partners: FAMSA, GADRA Advice, Child Welfare, the Assumption Development Centre and Business Training, Rotary, Days for Girls International and the Ubunye Foundation.