The phenomenon of menstrual poverty is escalating due to the inflation crisis. In some areas of Africa, this results in girls offering sex in exchange for tampons, or risking infection using rags, tree leaves, or cow dung.
Since being ridiculed for bloodstains on her military uniform, Ghanaian student Juliette Opoko misses school for about a week each month. Her parents, who own a small farm, can no longer afford to buy sanitary towels.
The cost of sanitary towels has more than doubled to 12 Ghanaian cedi (€1.41), compared to 5 Ghanaian cedi last year. In the West African country, the inflation rate is currently around 32 percent. Poor families, such as the Opoko family, were forced to focus on buying food rather than hygiene products.
“I miss school because I once smeared my oil and the boys harassed me. It affected my self-confidence,” says Opoko, 15, over the phone from Ashanti district in southern Ghana.
“The sanitary pads are very expensive…Sometimes I use toilet paper, baby diapers, or wipes during my period,” adds Opoko, who wants to become a nurse.
The growing global problem of inflation has led to the high cost of sanitary towels in many African countries. Health experts and charities say this is causing more girls to drop out of school, or to resort to unhealthy alternatives that can cause infections and sterility.
The price of a pack of sanitary napkins increased by 117 percent in Zimbabwe in April and 50 percent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo compared to January. This was founded by ActionAid International, which works for the rights of women and girls.
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Charities say this could have devastating consequences for millions of African girls. It can affect their education, health and dignity, push them to have sex with older men – and ultimately exacerbate gender inequality.
“With prices continuing to rise, our main concern is for women to forgo spending on health, such as medicine and sanitation, to prioritize food and other things to support their families,” said Sogania Kimbro of Catholic Relief Services.
“This could have a huge impact on the girls who go to school and the women who earn their living,” said Kimbro, deputy director of program quality in East Africa. She adds that families are also skipping meals and selling livestock to adjust to higher longevity.
Education and health
Period poverty – often defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, toilets, and information about menstrual hygiene – is common in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Because of stigma, girls often miss school and sometimes drop out of school altogether.
In Kenya, a survey sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 65 percent of women and girls could not afford to buy sanitary pads. Only 32 percent of rural schools have a good place, such as restrooms, where girls can change sanitary towels.
The United Nations estimates that one in ten girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their period, which can be up to 20 percent of the school year.
Even as these girls complete their education, activists say, they are more likely to fall behind boys their age, exacerbating existing inequalities in educational attainment.
Health experts say that when girls use makeshift substitutes, such as paper, old rags, papers and even dried cow dung, they run the risk of developing reproductive and urinary tract infections.
“Girls can get common bacterial infections from using rags,” said Anita Asamoah, an independent public health advocate.
“If they don’t get proper care soon, this infection will later lead to pelvic inflammatory disease or infertility.”
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries, which makes it difficult to get pregnant and increases the risk of an ectopic pregnancy in the fallopian tubes.
sex vs tampons
Without pad money, some girls have sex with older men, perpetuating the cycle of dependency and exploitation. It can also lead to unwanted pregnancy and early motherhood.
“Men lure them into sexual relations in exchange for sanitary towels,” says Adjoa Nyanteng Yenyi, who works in adolescent sexual health with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Ghana.
“Many girls are victims of teenage and unplanned pregnancies.”
Research by the Kenya Medical Research Institute found that 10 percent of 15-year-old girls surveyed had sex with men to get their period products.
Activists have urged African countries to eliminate taxes on menstrual products or make them more affordable. Only a few countries, such as Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, have already done so.
Ghana imposes a 20 percent import tax and an additional 12.5 percent value-added tax on sanitary towels. Ghanaian tax authorities classify it as a luxury item.
In addition, activists say more countries should provide free sanitary pads to schoolgirls, similar to Kenya, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. They also believe that cheaper, reusable products such as pants with washable liners and menstrual cups should be promoted.
Coffee Creams Nianting She is the Country Director of Ghana for CanYou? , which distributes silicone menstrual cups to marginalized girls around the world.
“We need to find effective and sustainable ways to tackle menstrual poverty,” he says.
“One successful strategy is to put reusable products like the menstrual cup on the agendas of policy makers.” He adds that the cups last up to 10 years.
This article originally appeared on the IPS partner Thomson Reuters Foundation