SAGAMU, OGUN: Before November last year, every time Margaret Sunday and her sister finished the pack of sanitary pads their mother bought for them, they often resorted to using cut-out sections of a wrapper or newspaper whenever there was no money to buy pads.
But that is precisely what experts say girls should not do because using pieces of clothing, newspapers, or rags could cause urinary tract infections.
A global crisis
Over 800 million women and girls around the world menstruate every day. The majority of them are among 1.2 billion women who do not have sufficient access to sanitary hygiene products like pantyliners, menstrual cups, tampons, and pads.
Referred to as period poverty, the lack of access to these products is one reason some girls miss school for at least four days during their menstruation every month - at least one in every 10 African girls is affected.
In Nigeria, 43% of the population lives on less than $1.9 a day. With a pack of pads here selling for between N550 ($1.33) and N12,499 ($30.3), many families cannot provide sanitary health products for their girls. It is why some girls resort to using unhealthy alternatives like newspapers, rags, and toilet tissue.
Besides affordability, most public schools in Nigeria do not have functional and isolated toilets where girls can clean up. Plus, some people still believe a menstruating woman or girl carries 'bad luck' and should not be allowed in public gatherings. These challenges make some girls skip school during their period in a country where 60% of all out-of-school Nigerian children are girls.
The story is, however, different for Sunday today. In November last year, she participated in a training that taught girls how to manage their menstrual flow and learn how to produce their own reusable pads.
"Now, when it (purchased pads) is finished, I add a towel material to [a] cotton fabric and sew them together just like they taught us," the 14-year-old said. "I also make it for my immediate younger sister."
The four-hour-long training she participated in was organized by The Feyisayo Sobowale Initiative or TFSI, a group advocating for the rights of the girl child in Nigeria. The training took place at Sunday's school, the Soyindo Community High School in Sagamu community, Ogun State.
Since 2019, TFSI has carried out educational programmes across seven high schools in Sagamu. It educates girls on the importance of menstrual hygiene and the dangers of using unhealthy alternatives like newspapers, toilet paper, or rags.
But to make its campaign for healthy menstrual hygiene practice more sustainable, last year, it engaged 10 volunteer instructors to start teaching schoolgirls how to produce their reusable pads.
For four hours, the girls are taken through making sanitary pads by hand using locally sourced cotton fabric laced inside with a towel material that holds discharges during menstruation.
They are given pamphlets containing text/pictorial five-step guides. The schoolgirls start by printing out the pad template and cutting it out (with scissors) along its dotted lines. They trace the template over a 'cotton fabric' using a marker and then cut out two pieces of the cotton fabric.
After that, they place one piece of the fabric on top of the other and sew the sides of the two pieces together (using thread and needle), leaving the top and bottom bits open. A pre-cut towel material is then inserted into the open bits, and the bits are sewn up.
Once a girl has her towel material and cotton fabric, she can produce as many pads as she wants using a needle and thread. And each self-produced sanitary pad can be washed and reused for as long as a year, TFSI said.
'I thought I had injured myself'
Deborah Adesola was nearly 13 years old when she first saw her period. Before then, no one had discussed menstruation with her, so her heart skipped when she saw it, but she managed to clean herself up using one of her old clothes.
"I thought I had injured myself," she recalls.
But after she attended one TFSI-organised training in her school on February 20, 2020, Adesola felt relieved that menstruation is a healthy natural phenomenon among women and girls and that she needs not to be ashamed. Like Sunday, Adesola now produces her pads.
"I have now learned how to make reusable pads," she said. "Before now, I used some of my old clothes, but I have been warned [that] it is dangerous."
Sunday, Adesola and other TFSI-trained girls now go about teaching their friends how to make their pads.
TFSI's founder, Feyisayo Sobowale, said the reusable pad project "is an improvement when it comes to girl-child pad life [because] some teachers now tell us many girls come to school with pads in their bags instead of tissue papers."
While women mostly spearhead the fight against period poverty in Nigeria, Sobowale, a 22-year-old man based in Sagamu, said his inspiration came from observing that discussions around menstruation in most rural Nigerian communities were garnished with myths and misinformation like a menstruating girl/woman is impure.
He was determined to spark attitude change, so he started the campaign in February 2019.
"We have also been able to educate thousands of girls about menstruation and menstrual hygiene," the youth said. "We want to reach out to as many girls as we can in Sagamu and expand statewide."
Like Sobowale, Chaste Christopher Inegbedion (commonly called "Padman") started Padman African, a nonprofit, to deliver period boxes containing pads to schoolgirls and train male teachers to support menstruating school girls.
The organisation has delivered over 1,200 boxes to girls and trained 20 teachers, including six male teachers supporting girls in 12 secondary schools across Nigeria.
Then, there is Harvey Olufunmilayo, who, in 2018, started advocacy that sought a legislative framework that would give girls more access to pads.
The campaign trended on Twitter via the hashtag "#EndThe9jaTaxOnPads" and gathered support from other Nigerian activists who collectively submitted a petition to the national legislative assembly. In the petition, they asked lawmakers to make a law providing for a 50% cut in the cost of pads, free provision of pads in public places, and removal of value-added tax on sanitary hygiene products.
In January last year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the "Financial Bill 2019" into law. The law included sanitary towels and pads among 20 items exempted from a new 7.5% value-added tax - a tax levied on each step of a product's sale chain leading to a price increase that burdens the final consumer. Some activists say Olufunmilayo's campaign contributed in part to that exception.
These men-led efforts show that more men are joining the fight to end period poverty in Nigeria, a development globally considered necessary to win the battle against period poverty.
But be careful, experts warn
Self-made reusable fabric-made pads are not only useful for girls to keep clean and avoid missing school, but they are also good for the environment, UNICEF said.
But some experts warn that the pads must be well-maintained and used cautiously. Otherwise, they could breed infections.
"Factory-made reusable pads can be used for a year with proper hygiene. The duration of the self-made reusable pads cannot be determined unless it is tested," said Oluwaseun Ogunkayode, a public health expert in Kwara State.
"The issue of menstruation has to do with proper hygiene in order not to get infections or diseases associated with poor hygiene. These self-made reusable pads have to be properly monitored and managed."
Meanwhile, not every student who participates in TFSI's training lacks the financial ability to buy disposable pads. Yet, even the-able-to-buy have testimonies of how the training has changed their attitude.
"[Now] I use three disposable pads during my period, and I take my bath at least twice daily," said Chiamaka Umoke, a 15-year-old student of Methodist Comprehensive College in Sagamu. "This is done to maintain good hygiene so as not to contract infections."