MONROVIA—As Liberia struggles to narrow its gender inequality gap, women’s rights advocates have been highlighting the issues they say hinder the advancement of women and girls. One primary challenge is what advocates call “period poverty” — the inability of poor girls to obtain sanitary pads that make it possible for them to go to school during their monthly menstruation.
By Dennise Nimpson with New Narratives
Martha is one of them. The twenty-year-old says she often abandons her 11th grade classes when her period approaches. Martha, whose last name is being withheld to protect her from stigma, says her academic performance is hurting as a result.
“I felt bad missing school because my friends were in school writing tests and I was not in school,” said Marth. Like most poor girls and women who cannot afford purpose made sanitary pads, Martha uses towels or cloths. She is forced to change the cloth in the bathroom at school and carry the soiled one in her bag.
Women’s rights advocates say a typical girl needs ten pads a month at a cost of $LD2000 or $US10. The World Bank says the average Liberian lives on just $US53 a month. That means the cost of pads alone would take twenty percent of the average Liberian’s income.
With pads out of reach girls like Martha are forced to use unhygienic strips of old clothing or towels as pads. Cloths are not designed to absorb blood. As they become soaked, smelly and uncomfortable to wear they can cause rashes and infections. Most girls who are forced to use them prefer to stay home. Part of the problem is a taboo on even discussing periods and sanitary pads in conservative areas of the country. Women and girls are left ignorant of their options and at risk of health problems.
In Liberia there is no clear data on the number of girls affected by period poverty but a report 2022 by ActionAid Liberia said that one in every 10 girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school due to lack of access to sanitary pads. As one of the poorest countries in Africa Liberia’s number is likely far higher. The UN estimates about 1.2 million women and girls in Liberia menstruate each month. Liberia has one of the world’s highest levels of children not in school.
In Ghana, where data is recorded, the majority of adolescent girls miss school each month due to menstruation, with prevalence ranging from 27.5 percent to 95 percent depending on the area.
Women and girls can face severe health consequences from using cloths which frequently cause painful and potentially dangerous urinary tract infections and risk misdiagnosis.
“If you have access to sanitary pads, you have access to education concerning the sanitary pads, obviously you will be reducing urinary tract infections very widely,” said John Senda, Chief Executive Officer of Health Land Laboratory Clinic. “We sometimes miss the diagnosis, because, when people use the unorthodox sanitary pad, it creates lacerations.” Senda said girls are frequently misdiagnosed with syphilis, a serious disease that is usually sexually transmitted.
Because sanitary pads are not made in Liberia they must be imported at a high price that also faces an import tax. In a bid to lower the price advocates have lobbied legislators to remove the 10 percent tax imposed on imports. In 2022 activists led by Youth Champion for Menstrual Hygiene, a civil society organization, sent a petition to the House of Representatives asking for a repeal of the tax. The petition was received by Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis, Montserrado County District #4 Representative, who lambasted fellow lawmakers for failing to support the provision of pads in schools and public areas.
“When men are making decisions, they don’t mention it because they don’t see the need for sanitary pads to be in these places,” Dennis said.
Robert Haynes, Director of Press and Public Affairs at the House of Representatives, said more than a year after it was submitted, the petition is in “the committee room” of the Legislature with no date set to discuss it.
“The 54th Legislature would expire in December,” said Haynes. “So, it’s optimistic. These things can come back or form committees when they come on the floor and decisions can be taken.”
Naomi Tulay-Solanke, whose organization Community Health Care Initiative (CHCI), was one of the petitioners, expressed frustration to FrontPage Africa/New Narratives over the failure of the Legislature to act on the matter.
“Every period you have 10 girls in the class of 30 that will step out of school for four to five days,” said the CHCI Founder and Executive Director.
Smallwood Gizzie said she works with more than 100 girls but struggles to find enough funds.
“We have this program that we came up with called the ‘period party’ where we invite schools, we invite the right people we invite different institutions to come out on that day. We have food on sale, we have the girls learning about menstrual hygiene, we have people just come to donate for the past two years that we have done, and we have seen where we can get a pad stockpile that will last for a whole school year.”
Betty’s organization also provides skills to the girls to help raise their own money to buy pads.
“No young lady wants to continuously use the towel or use lappa or something else to hold their period. So, we were able to train them to use their hands. They’re able to sell something either cookies or something to make sure they are able to buy the L$250 or one L$150 pads.”
As the matter attracts national attention Martha and other girls interviewed said they want national leaders to treat the issue with urgency. Their fate is now in the hands of an almost entirely new Legislature taking office next month.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.