Managing menstruation in West and Central Africa

In many parts of the world, menstruation is a taboo topic, surrounded by silence and shrouded in myths. Yet, menstruation and menstrual hygiene are emerging as central issues for gender equality, human rights and development.

African woman doing her hair (photo)

WSSCC/UN Women/Javier Acebal

Since 2014, WSSCC and UN Women have co-organized a Joint Program on Gender, Hygiene and Sanitation. Implemented in Senegal, Niger and Cameroon in West and Central Africa, the program aims to establish a framework within which all women and girls in this region benefit in a sustained manner from sanitation, hygiene and water (WASH) services.

WSSCC and UN Women have conducted several studies in the region on menstruation practices and behaviors. The findings of these studies echo concerns from many countries around the world. A first, and very critical, problem is limited or incorrect knowledge and information. Many girls do not understand what is happening when they start menstruating and have limited knowledge on biological processes. Mothers often do not discuss menstruation with their daughters before they have their first period. As one girl in Cameroon explained: “My periods started when I was in the field with my mother. Since I was ashamed I didn’t say anything to her… when my mother realized that it was my period, she discreetly took me into her bedroom and took out a sanitary cloth and explained to me how to wear it. She also told me not to greet any boys anymore, because if I did I would fall pregnant straight away.”

The absence of adequate sanitation facilities is another factor with a significant impact on the daily lives of women and girls. Over 40% of the girls surveyed said that they missed school for at least one day per month during their periods and a majority of economically active women said that they missed work during this period, preferring to stay at home. Due to a lack of facilities at school, at work and in public spaces, women often prefer to manage menstruation at home, meaning they are unable to participate in cultural, educational, social and income-generating activities. Poor practices and unsafe materials compound this problem.

Last, but not least, some of the most significant barriers for women in these countries are the social restrictions, beliefs and myths that influence the management of menstruation. Menstruation is a taboo issue in the community. Seen as an impurity or even a disease, menstrual blood is managed in secret. When menstruating, women and girls are subjected to various religious, food-related, domestic or sexual prohibitions, which often lead to further isolation or stigmatization.

The unmentionable menstruation

Around the world, girls and women use different words to say they are menstruating.

Different words for menstruation around the world (worldmap)
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Hullum lechman tauti Mad cow disease


Lingonveckan Lingonberry week


Der er kommunister i lysthuset There are communists in the funhouse


Erdbeerwoche Strawberry week


De rode loper The red carpet


Les Anglais ont debarqué The English have landed


Aunt Flo / That time of the month / The curse


Little red sister has come


Eu estou com Chico “I’m with Chico”


Wapha mphuzi She killed a goat


Granny’s stuck in trafic