You are here

UNFPA promotes menstrual health management for girls during COVID-19 lockdown

“I was very scared and I kept making a mess, even when I tried to clean up – it was hardly ever good enough” Susan Marima recounts her first menstrual period, at only 12 years old.

Though Susan, now 21, lived with her parents and elder siblings – she was too embarrassed to say anything. “It was new to me and it always left me feeling embarrassed.” Susan says she used tissue paper and little pieces of cloth. It was not long before her mother came across the ‘mess’ that she immediately knew that her youngest daughter had started her menstrual period.

In an effort to support young girls like Susan through this important milestone in their lives, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supported Sista2Sista clubs have stepped in to support young girls to prepare and manage their menstrual health.  Launched in 2013, the Sista2Sista programme offers a safe place where adolescent girls can speak with mentors and each other about life experiences. Girls in the clubs learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights – including Menstrual Health Management (MHM), financial literacy, and how to navigate difficult social situations, including coercive sexual relationships.

Spiwe Mpofu, a Sista2Sista mentor in Hopley, south of Harare says menstrual health cannot be separated from sexual reproductive health and is therefore a critical component of the Sista2Sista manual.

“The Sista2Sista clubs are attended by girls of ages 10 -24, lessons around menstrual hygiene for those experiencing puberty usually include preparations for the onset of the period and use of sanitary ware while for the older ones, emphasis is on hygiene and cleanliness during the period,” Mpofu says.

Debela Madzara (21) of Hopley, says the lockdown, due to the global COVID19 pandemic is making it difficult for girls and young ladies like herself to maintain their hygiene during menstrual periods.

“I joined Sista2Sista club in 2017 and from the menstrual hygiene lessons, I know what I need to do to keep myself clean during my period – but keeping clean is increasingly becoming during this lockdown,” Debela says.

“We are struggling financially, we have had to abandon our mini-markets due to the restrictions spelt out by government, this has left us unable to buy sanitary pads and soap to wash the reusable pads. We do not even have soap to bath to keep ourselves clean.”

These concerns are confirmed by Spiwe and another Sista2Sista mentor, Naume Chakoromoka (51) who says, in addition to shortages of toiletry resources – scarcity of water in most of Harare’s high density suburbs has made it difficult for girls to maintain hygiene.

“This exposes young girls to abuse as they seek water or travel lengthy distances to access the precious commodity,” she says.

Through partners like Zichire, FACT, ZAPSO, World Vision – UNFPA Zimbabwe this year distributed reusable pads and menstrual cups to Sista2Sista club girls in 23 districts – Hopely included. During the lockdown, UNFPA is supporting implementing partners to distribute disposable pads to enable girls and young women to continue their periods with dignity.

Today, Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in commemorating Menstrual Health Management Day, while under lockdown with calls for more support for advancement of women’s menstrual health needs.

The Minister of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprise Development, Dr. Sithembiso Nyoni, in a statement to mark the day said, the first steps towards the promotion of Menstrual Hygiene is to ensure it is not only seen as a women’s issue but a development issue.

“Women and girls, especially those from marginalised communities face an added disadvantage in that they fail to access sanitary ware because of the high costs. This is exacerbated by lack of knowledge due to ignorance of personal hygiene which is important. All this exposes them to health risks of contracting infections of the reproductive system and may actually impact on their reproductive health,” Minister Nyoni.

“The government together with relevant stakeholders must commit ourselves to meet the reproductive health needs of women and girls and ensure that they have access to correct and factual information regarding menstruation.”

In 2019, the Zimbabwe government has scrapped import duty on sanitary ware and availed a budget of $200 million through the Ministry of Primary and secondary Education to cater for the provision of sanitary ware for girls in schools.

UNFPA has also supported the distribution of reusable pads and menstrual cups for young women in tertiary institutions. SAYWHAT has facilitated the training of peer educators in the tertiary institutions who in turn train and support young women on proper use of the MHM items.

The majority of the girls attend school every day during their periods and the reusable pads do not seem to have had an effect on school attendance but there was an increase of girls attending other activities, especially school sports after the distribution of the reusable pads.

UNFPA Country Representative Dr Esther Muia says UNFPA remains committed to supporting young girls to continue to experience the natural cycle of menstrual periods as part of the broader sexual reproductive health.