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Should men and boys be included in menstruation discourses?

09 May 2020 at 16:22hrs | Views
While menstruation is a natural biological process and a symbol of pride for humanity, it is often regarded as dirty and surrounded by stigmas and taboos that only exist to violate the rights and freedoms of women and girls, including the rights to human dignity, personal security, equality and non-discrimination, healthcare, education, among others. Men and boys often hold negative attitudes towards menstruation which also shape their worldview and resultant actions and decisions that have a bearing on women and girls. Whilst 52 percent of the population in Zimbabwe is female, it is unfortunate that women and girls sometimes do not have influence over decisions that affect their bodies.

When it comes to menstruation, many women are still suffering from lack of safe and hygienic menstrual products as well as sanitary facilities due to financial constraints and other challenges. This is broadly defined as period poverty, and it is often accompanied by lack of correct information about menstruation. Because of lack of sanitary wear and pain relievers, many girls miss school every month when they are on their periods, depriving them of their right to education. Some girls eventually drop out of school, and are compelled to get married at a young age.

In the absence of proper sanitary wear, women and girls have no other option but to resort to unsafe means such as rags, newspapers, cowdung and others, in a desperate attempt to manage their menstrual cycles and avoid blood from getting on their clothes while menstruating. This however has different health risks such as cervical cancer and others; and might also result in infertility or even death in some extreme cases. Girls may brave to still attend school wearing such inconvenient makeshift period protection, but they won't fully participate and concentrate, as they constantly worry about blood leaking onto their uniform or school chair, and be mocked by boys. Many girls suffering from period poverty also manifest poor mental health in the form of anxiety, depression and distress. Some school girls are also forced into transactional sex, with the intention of trying to find money to buy sanitary products so that they can attend school, with risks of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

While all this is happening, we also have a scenario whereby men actually occupy positions which influence decisions on how women and girls manage their periods when menstruating. While this is not something to be celebrated, men hold majority influence on decisions impacting on the price of sanitary products, who should get them for free, how tax should be framed, what female toilets should look like, among others important menstrual health management issues – as I shall try to highlight. There has also been debate on whether men should be involved in menstruation issues or leave women and girls to discuss and manage them on their own. But what those arguing that men should not be part of such discourses fail to realize is that men are already involved deeply in these issues due to positions they occupy.

In light of the above, it should be realized that if menstruation is then framed as a ‘women's issue' or a ‘girl thing', it gives an erroneous impression that women's health as well as other rights and freedoms are irrelevant to men. Again, it should be noted that if men are also allowed to make menstrual decisions while holding onto their deeply rooted taboos, stigma, misinformation and negative attitudes about periods, the outcome will always be undesirable and destructive. In America, for example; while debating a bill to have free menstrual products a right for female prisoners, a Republican lawmaker Richard Pickett argued that guaranteed access to free menstrual hygiene products risked turning prisons into country clubs.  Why should free provision of an essential basic right be regarded as a country club offering? This partially explains why period poverty is also still prevalent in Zimbabwe, with no concrete action being taken to decisively tackle it once and for all. The bottomline is that men who have influence in majority of positions are not mainstreaming menstruation. Otherwise, why should it be business as usual when 6 out of 10 girls miss school every month due to period poverty? Why should it be okay for women to queue to use public toilets? Why should workplaces have female toilets with no sanitary bins, sanitary wear dispensers and running water?

Due to patriarchy, men still predominate in roles of political and corporate leadership as well as other leadership spheres in Zimbabwe. Take our Cabinet, for instance, which only has five female ministers out of the 21 ministers. In Parliament, female legislators only constitute 31% of the National Assembly, which means that laws on menstrual health management have to get the approval of male legislators for them to pass. But it is their notions and attitudes towards menstruation which will also guide their arguments, reasoning and ultimate decisions, as was the case with the Republican lawmaker. And bringing it home, I will give reference to the Education Amendment Bill which was debated in Parliament on 25 July 2019. The then Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, Professor Paul Mavima, who was representing government, actually opposed the clause which was proposing to provide free sanitary wear to all school girls, arguing that the issue "was more of an administrative nature and could not be legislated into the Act" as well as lack of resources.

"We have to take cognizance of our fiscal situation as a nation. To place an obligation on the State when we all know that there is limited capacity to take care of that obligation, is to be irresponsible in our legislation. I really think that let us leave it as endevour for the time being," argued Professor Mavima. In simple terms, government was arguing that sanitary wear for school girls is not really important to warrant free provision using public funds.
 
However, it was interesting to see male legislators such as Honourable Prince Dubeko Sibanda, Honourable Innocent Gonese and Honourable James Munetsi taking a lead in actually challenging government's fallacious position. In his strong argument Honourable Prince Sibanda said, "If we are saying this is a right that needs to be enforced then the law should speak clearly indicating that it is an obligation. The Central Government cannot abrogate that responsibility of ensuring that they take care of the sexual and reproductive health of our female citizens.  It is squarely the duty of Government. If Government cannot do that, then there is no need for them to be Government, they should get out of Government. This august House will support a budget for sanitary wear, we are going to support the Bill in this House."

Another male legislator, Honourable James Munetsi, posed important questions, "I have always asked this question: When a girl is at school and she goes on her menstrual cycle, what do you want the teacher to do?  If teacher has nothing to give to that girl, what do you want the teacher to do – just look at the child?  If a mother cannot get money to buy pads for herself, how about her girl child?  Why can the Government not set aside a fund for that to assist this girl child?"

At the end of the debate, it was finally agreed that there should be free provision. Thus we now have an Education Act with a clause in Section 4(1a) that says, "The State shall ensure the free provision of sanitary wear and other menstrual health facilities to girls in all schools to promote menstrual health." The legislators were well informed about the importance of ending period poverty due the awareness campaigns as well as petitions filed to Parliament by different activists, including Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe Trust.

It is important to always ensure that men and boys are educated about menstruation as well as the plight of period poverty. In our local governance, men also dominate with all mayors of the 12 major towns in Zimbabwe being male, except for Kwekwe where Councilor Angeline Kasipo is the first female mayor in the town. The decisions of the mayors and councilors can have an impact on menstrual health management in public places. But if they do not understand the magnitude of period poverty and if they have little understanding of menstruation, it will also manifest in their policies on sanitation and menstrual health. Right now, female public toilets in our towns and cities are far from being female friendly. Women often queue uncomfortably for a long time for emergency toilet use; some would have started their period unexpectedly and needing to urgently put on period protection. The inside of the female public toilets also do not meet the requirements of women and girls who menstruate. The majority of them do not have sanitary disposal bins to cater for disposal of used sanitary wear; resulting in women flashing the used sanitary wear or just dumping it on the floor.

There are also no tissues in female public toilets; and there are no mirrors as well for one to check themselves after toilet use. Inside the toilet cubicles, there are no hooks or stands for female users to put their bags or ware while changing their sanitary wear or using the toilet, making it difficult and inconvenient for women to attend to their natural issues. The public toilets also close during the night, leaving homeless girls and women who live in the streets stranded when they start their periods or need to change their sanitary wear at night. They will be left with nowhere to go and forced to take matters into their own hands. When there is no running water, the toilets are usually locked out totally to all members of the public. Surely, we should have public toilets with better female-friendly features, if our male-dominated mayors and councilors knew about the importance of menstruation. That is why it is important to make men understand what period poverty is and the role they can play, so that they can utilise their influence to advocate for positive menstrual health reform.

The same goes for different workplaces in different parts of the country. There is also male dominance in different workplaces with leadership positions also mainly occupied by men. For example, there was only one female chief executive out of all publicly traded companies listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange as at 1 August 2019. The rest were led by men. As a result, we still have many workplaces that are not period-friendly, with toilets that are also not female-friendly. Some workplaces do not have water or sanitary wear dispensers for those who may start their periods unexpectedly. I know of a workplace where female employees have to drive to the nearest convenient shopping centre to use the toilets there, each time when nature calls. Some workplaces have just one toilet used by all employees, male and female. A workplace toilet that is not period friendly poses a huge challenge to female employees who menstruate. It also affects their dignity, productivity, confidence and general morale. Toilets at most workplaces make female employees not want to come to work when they are on their periods.

At school, boys should also be educated about periods to allow them to confront their preconceived notions and negative attitudes about menstruation. In Zimbabwe, 54 percent of girls experience mocking and stigmatization, with 26 percent being isolated and 13 percent saying boys call them names during menstruation, according to a study by SNV Zimbabwe. But why are boys doing this to girls? It's obviously because they have been excluded in menstruation conversations. No boy is born with such negative attitudes towards menstruation or holding period stigmas and taboos. It is something they learn through socialization. But they can also be taught to unlearn such fallacies by being equipped with correct information about periods. If the subject of periods is regarded as taboo at home and school, it also means boys will be deprived access to accurate information about periods for them to correct the negative ideas and attitudes they express towards girls who are menstruating. Therefore, when boys are excluded in the menstruation narrative, it only leaves them in a vacuum that compels them to frame negative conjectures about periods, thereby perpetuating period stigma and taboos.

Nearly 70 percent of the rural population in Zimbabwe also live in rural areas, being governed by traditional leaders such as chiefs and headmen, who are virtually all men. These traditional leaders are said to be the custodians of culture, some of which is still perpetrating period taboos. Zimbabwe's constitution, in Section 282(1b), gives traditional leaders powers to "take measures to preserve the culture, traditions and heritage of their communities". The challenge however is that some of those cultures and traditions are the very taboos that need to be broken. If these traditional leaders, who are virtually all men, are not engaged to reform their attitudes on menstruation, women and girls in the countryside will continue to have their rights violated left, right and centre.

It is therefore important for menstruation conversations to include men and boys, as they play an important role when it comes to fostering menstrual equity. We should move away from the ill-informed notion that menstruation is a women's issue and start treating it as a humanity issue.

Clemence Machadu is an economist and researcher. He is also a trustee at Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe Trust.


Source - Clemence Machadu
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