Addressing period shame alongside stigma, poverty, illiteracy and inequality

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Interview with a leading champion for menstrual health and hygiene in Nigeria By Olajide Adelana ABUJA, Nigeria – Ms Elsie Doolumum Ozika, Founder of Toilet Kulture Initiative (TKI), a non-governmental organization and stakeholder in Nigeria’s National Task Group on Sanitation, is an unwavering advocate for sustainable sanitation behaviour in public places and institutions across Nigeria. Ms Ozika, whose organization was closely involved in the planning of ‘Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet’ campaign, recently spoke with WSSCC on the state of menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in Nigeria and what her organization is doing about it. WSSCC: What do you think are the obstacles to addressing menstrual health and hygiene in Nigeria? Ms Elsie Doolumum Ozika, Founder of Toilet Kulture Initiative: Until recently, the subject of menstrual health and hygiene was not considered a matter for discussion amongst households or, worse still, communities in Nigeria. It was often seen as a ‘girl’s best-kept secret’ up until she left her father’s house and even in her marital space. It only came up when a woman had to explain her inability to have sexual intercourse with her husband. Lack of practical information on this crucial aspect of women’s health leads to unpreparedness among girls for their first menstruation, as well as improper care during this critical period. Religious and cultural norms, where menstruation is being viewed as impure, and in some settings seen as punishment from the gods, have played a significant role in compounding the issue. The lack of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities is also a big challenge to addressing menstrual health and hygiene issues - only 26% of Nigerians having access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities. WSSCC: Can you talk about your current programme aimed at addressing cultural and harmful social practices that aid period shaming and discrimination? Ms Ozika: We have quite a few initiatives aimed at creating the much-needed awareness around menstrual health and hygiene, from the point of view of period shame, illiteracy, stigmatization, poverty, inequality and so on. TKI’s ‘PadHerUp’ campaign, which is mainstreamed into our ‘WASH in Schools’ programme, aims to equip adolescent girls with the knowledge to give them ownership over this critical process in their lives. It also aims to enlighten men and boys to understand that menstruation is not just a natural phenomenon but also an important aspect of the reproductive health of women, which results in increased interest and empathy. Access to gender-friendly sanitation facilities that will enable MHM for adolescent girls while in school. When this programme is institutionalized, then it becomes sustainable and scalable. WSSCC: What project carried out by your organization has had the most impact? Mr Ozika: In the just over one year period that TKI has been working to ensure the provision of well-maintained, inclusive and functional sanitation facilities that promote dignity, MHM has been a key component of our programmes. It began with a simple step of awareness creation at the University of Abuja in 2019. Through that campaign, in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Water Resources, technical support from WaterAid and Zenith Water project (private sector), we were able to reach about 2,000 students and non-academic staff of the University of Abuja. In 2020, however, in our strategic focus to institutionalize MHM in schools and communities, we took it a notch higher, collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Child Development, WSSCC, WaterAid, the National Task Group on Sanitation and other partners, with support from Chevra Delphines, we donated 220 menstrual hygiene kits to four communities in Kuje. WSSCC: Can you tell us about what piqued your interest in menstrual matters? Ms Ozika: I had become weary of complaining about the state of WASH facilities in Nigeria, so I decided it was time to do something, something to change the mindset and behaviour of the average Nigerian, as it concerns sanitation facilities (toilets). The incomparable state of sanitation facilities in Nigeria to other countries was just heart-wrenching. The dread of seeing dysfunctional, broken down, smelly, and in some cases non-approachable, toilets in our public places and government institutions, including healthcare centres, had become a constant irritation. I then realized in the course of my research that it is a cultural construct, a behaviour pattern of the Nigerians from childhood to adulthood, and this habit can be unlearned and new ones cultivated. WSSCC: As a leading champion for Menstrual Health and Hygiene, what can you do in your capacity to change the behaviour pattern? Ms Ozika: Keep doing what we are doing right now. And this includes, advocating, plus creating awareness on the need for everyone - including the Government - to prioritize the issues of WASH across Nigeria and also to make menstrual hygiene products accessible so that adolescent girls can stay in school. In times of pandemics, as we are now, menstrual products should be considered as essentials when putting together support for households, as already low resources are being targeted towards food and other needs considered to be essential, leaving women and girls unable to access menstrual hygiene products.