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ABUJA, Nigeria – Lying on her bed, eyes closed, Onyi reached into the drawer of her night table, pulled out a new menstrual pad and headed for the bathroom. Onyi, who at that time was a full time journalist, had been following on stories of how internally displaced persons (IDPs) including women and girls are living in squalid conditions, and could not but reflect on the difficulties they face. She decided to intervene and that was when the idea for the Sponsor a Menstrual Cycle Campaign was born.
Onyi Sunday has since been at the forefront of advocating for increased access to menstrual hygiene products for women and girls living in camps for IDPs. According to the UNHCR, the conflict in northeastern Nigeria between the military and the terrorist group, Boko Haram, is responsible for the internal displacement of over two million people, the majority of whom are women, girls and children.
Providing for even the basic needs of these IDPs has been an overwhelming challenge, leaving many dependent upon the generosity of philanthropic individuals, humanitarian agencies and the private sector.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they are particularly vulnerable as access to food and other relief materials is getting increasingly limited.
“In most IDP camps, the priority is to secure food for the family. Securing sanitary towels for a monthly flow is the last thing people worry about,” she says.
“But sanitary towels aren’t cheap. For those who manage to find the money, it’s often a struggle. Most girls cannot afford it, and they resort to using pieces of clothing to collect menstrual blood. This is unhygienic, especially when you consider girls from homes that are struggling just to clothe themselves.”
She believes that ensuring access to sanitary towels and sanitation facilities should be given priority when planning interventions for IDPs. She says men and women are often affected differently in most conflicts and that efforts should be made not to leave anyone behind when addressing these issues.
This, Onyi says, is the reason she started her campaign to sponsor the provision of sanitary pads and menstrual hygiene kits to women and girls in IDP camps.
As Onyi describes it, circumstances are especially frightening for menstruating women and girls who have neither money with which to buy sanitary pads nor access to sanitation facilities to visit during their period, which makes them all the more vulnerable to diseases and infections.
Poor menstrual hygiene can pose physical health risks and has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections, and is a concern in Nigeria. The Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), together with in-country partners, has been addressing issues of menstrual health and hygiene in Nigeria since 2011.
A major milestone in this effort was the establishment by the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs (FMWA) of a Technical Working Group on Menstrual Health and Hygiene Management in Nigeria, with support provided by WSSCC.
Removing obstacles to the well-being of menstruators in Nigeria requires consideration of a variety of factors, says Onyi. She says that issues around beliefs, misinformation and access to sanitary towels, among others, must be addressed.
“The taboo in most homes around the subject of menstruation makes it a major problem. Naturally, education on menstruation should begin from the family unit as girls and boys attain puberty. In most homes, however, sexual reproduction is a ‘no-go’ area, as far as discussions are concerned. The girl, especially, is forced to rely on her mother to educate her. Her mother passes on her limited education on the subject to the daughter,” explains Onyi.
“This brings me to another important issue, and that is misinformation. In most cases, the information passed on is incorrect. A girl is told that her cycle is sacred and sometimes considered unclean. She must keep to herself during her periods, and the blood must not be seen by others. Girls grow up thinking this natural occurrence is a thing of shame,” she said.
While calling for collaboration from menstrual hygiene experts, stakeholders and individuals to sponsor a year sanitary pad for menstruating women and girsls, Onyi says she won’t rest on her oars until menstruating women and girls in IDP camps can menstruate in dignity.