World Menstrual Health Day on May 28 is being observed in Cameroon with NGOs and girls asking the government to either subsidize sanitary pads or provide them for free, as they already do with condoms.
At least 300 school children are gathered at the government school in the southwestern town of Buea on the occasion of this year’s World Menstrual Health Day.
Fifteen-year-old Carine Ndzelen tells them in Lamnso, a language spoken in Cameroon, that young girls and women continue to suffer from stigma during their menstrual periods, and it’s considered taboo to even discuss it.
She says it is unethical for students and teachers to mock girls who are seen with drops of blood on their skirts. She says menstruation is a normal vaginal bleeding that occurs as part of a woman's monthly cycle indicating that her growth is normal. She says people should comfort and assist girls who menstruate by donating sanitary kits or clean pieces of cloth that can be used to absorb menstrual discharge.
Ndzelen said the education of many young girls is undermined by limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure.
Ernestine Oben is founder and coordinator of the NGO Able Women Cameroon that works for the emancipation of women and girls. She says the NGOs invited Ndzelen because of the ordeal she endured while experiencing her first menses in the countryside.
"She didn't even notice that her period had started until blood stains were dripping on her legs, and her mother had to start tearing her dress that she was putting on," said Oben. "Every now and then she would tear off a piece and give her to use until they got here. Her first experience was in the bush, and her mother had to sacrifice the dress that she was wearing."
Cameroon’s ministry of social affairs reports that many girls do not understand what is happening when they start menstruating. They either go into hiding or start using traditional concoctions proposed by their peers to stop the flow. Mothers often do not discuss menstruation with their daughters.
The absence of adequate sanitation facilities in schools and public spaces makes it very difficult for women and girls to manage their periods.
Feka Parchibel is coordinator of the NGO Hope for the Vulnerables and Orphans. She says the government should assist young girls with menstrual kits every month. Her NGO distributed menstrual pads to poor children at school.
"There are many more women and girls who need sanitary kits than the quantity we actually brought, and it is frustrating," said Parchibel. "You see women who use rags, papers, who use just anything unhealthy to stop that blood flow at that particular moment. It has made women and girls lose their dignity. Our wish is for the government to subsidize the cost of these sanitary pads, why not make them free. If they [government] can give condoms for free why can’t they give sanitary pads, too, for free at least to young girls."
The government did not say if it will provide the kits free. But Stela Dopgima of Cameroon's Youth and Family Empowerment Center says there is ongoing education against taboos.
She says communities should stop thinking that menstruation is an impurity or a disease. She says communities should stop subjecting women and girls to religious, domestic or sexual prohibitions, which often lead to further isolation or stigmatization.