‘There’s still a lot of taboo about menstrual issues’: A PIN study in central Angola indicates opportunities for improving knowledge of menstruation among girls and boysPublished: Jun 21, 2022 Reading time: 5 minutes
The study ‘Perceptions and Barriers to Menstrual Hygiene Management’, carried out by People in Need in Bié province, central Angola, indicates that knowledge of menstruation among girls and boys is low and that girls need better conditions to manage their menstrual hygiene—especially in schools.
Responses to one of our questions highlighted that only three out of every ten women and girls interviewed understood what was happening when they had their first period. Additionally, younger girls often reach menarche unaware (61%) of what is happening. This observation was reinforced during group discussions with women and adolescents: girls generally do not know what the blood is unless they have older female friends or they learn at school.
Furthermore, 63% of women and 70% of girls reported feeling scared when they experienced their first menstruation—many of them thought they were hurt and did not know what was happening. Our research also pointed out that only 3% of women and girls, and 6% of boys could correctly identify that menstrual blood comes from the uterus. Furthermore, the proportion of respondents who knew how to correctly calculate a menstrual cycle or fertile days was low across all groups.
Regarding attitudes, including beliefs and perceptions, our study showed that menstruation is traditionally seen as a source of shame. 82% of girls and 75% of boys stated that they thought menstruation was something dirty, and euphemisms were often used to describe when women are menstruating. This practice contributes to the idea of an avoidable topic which prevents open, public discussion.
“If people notice you are on your period, it can bring you problems. For us, who have husbands, it is somewhat normal, but actually not so normal. No man, or even woman, can know or realise you are menstruating. That will bring you shame”, said a participant in a discussion group with adult women.
The survey was conducted over four months in 2021, with more than 580 participants, including girls and boys from 14 to 18 and women over 25. In addition to questionnaires, focus discussion groups were organised in the municipalities of Camacupa, Nharea, and Kuito, the capital city of Bié. Men also participated in the discussion groups to gather opinions about the subject. The inquiry was part of the Community and School Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) programme, implemented by PIN, together with UNICEF and with the support of public institutions.
Difficulties at school
In a revealing comment, one of the participants in training on how to produce handmade sanitary towels (as part of the CLTS programme) described the barriers girls face when trying to manage their menstrual hygiene: “When I was studying, it was a little bit difficult to use the toilet, because you don’t feel safe, so you change [the sanitary pad] quickly to get out of there”.
11% of the young women noted that they skip classes during their menstrual periods. Among those who attend class, the majority (75%) said they don’t use the school toilet during menstruation. Reasons for reluctance include poor hygiene conditions (63%), lack of privacy (40%). The latter is caused by an inability to close doors or by the presence of cracks in the walls.
Additionally, 65% of boys who answered the survey believed that their female classmates shouldn’t go to school during their periods; 59% thought that menstruation was a topic that should not be discussed with men. On a positive note, both boys and girls (30% and 39%, respectively) expressed a willingness to learn more about menstruation through talks organised at schools.
Based on our findings, we propose some recommendations to promote normalisation and positive messages around periods. Changes include the elimination of euphemisms by stimulating open talks and a proper approach at schools. Furthermore, we must promote the message that menstruation rights are human rights.
“The study provides relevant information about hygiene and menstrual health. We’ll use the results to better plan activities in our projects to meet the needs of women and girls. We also expect that the data will contribute to the work for women and girls that has been done by public institutions, other NGOs, Civil Society Organisations, and other actors committed to promoting women and girls’ empowerment”, says Ludovina Nunda, PIN’s Gender Equality and Inclusion Manager.
Handmade production of sanitary pads
We also recommend diversifying locally available menstrual hygiene materials by investing in sanitary pad manufacturing and training. This step would ensure that menstruating girls would have suitable materials at their disposal. As part of PIN’s CLTS programme, training on the handmade production of reusable pads was organised for more than 40 women and girls from six provinces. The training session included information on how to make handmade soap. After the training, participants in Civil Society Organisations and women’s groups conducted awareness-raising activities in their communities to spread information on menstrual health and hygiene.
Victorina Soares, one of the trainers who organised these activities, noted that they proved to be a challenge, noting that, even though the plan was to put girls and boys together to discuss topics such as menstrual hygiene and sexual and reproductive health. However, in the first meetings, the two audiences had to be separated. Only after making them aware of the importance of both sides having knowledge on such matters was it possible to bring them together. “We pass on the information in the communities to bring openness to the topic, but it’s still very difficult to talk about menstruation”, says Soares. “There’s still a lot of taboo around those issues”.