Liberia: Teens Want Sanitary Pads to Avoid Medical Complications


MONROVIA – More adolescent girls in Liberian schools miss classes because of their menstruation; some don’t have the money or proper sanitation to protect blood from seeping through their uniforms while they are in school. Therefore, they stay home for a week while using pieces of torn lappa, tissues, sheets, and whatever they can lay their hands on until their periods stop.

Report by Bettie K. Johnson-Mbayo, [email protected]

A girl out of school due to her period loses learning days, a total of two and a half weeks of every school period. This means that many girls in underprivileged communities are more likely to completely drop out of school whenever “that time of the month” comes.

Margibi- Martha, a mother of two girls started menstruating at the age of 12. She saw and used a proper sanitary pad at aged 24 when she gave birth at the C.H Rennie Hospital where a charity group donated pads and maternity materials at the maternity wall. 

Martha now a mother of two girls worries that when her kids grow up, they will result in using the same lappa/rags due to the huge amount in purchasing a sanitary pad. Though she had the opportunity to use proper sanitary pads when she was on the maternity wall she had a result to in using the rags/lappa for rest of her life while seeing her menses because this is the only thing she has to use to protect the blood from spilling over. “For me, they should reduce the price because not everybody got the money to buy it. I want the price of the Kotex to be reduced because I want to use it too”. 

When Martha started Menstruating, she thought it was a witch because no one had told her that age 12 she was going to see blood at that age, something that is normal for every woman.

 “The first day when it came, I thought it was a witch so I told my mother and she ties the towel and put it there, I was only given a special lappa to tie. It went for 4 days and sometimes one week. 

She wants the Government to reduce taxes/tariff on sanitary products and to offer them for free to young women.

“Free sanitary wear is needed, Martha says because many girls in Liberia can’t afford to buy it. “Their parents will be struggling to put food on the table, hence sanitary pads become a luxurious item,” she says.

Like Martha, Hawa in Larkayta community in Margibi County was surprised when her beautiful church dress was messed up with blood. Not knowing where she was bleeding from and how to stop the bleeding, Hawa hid and did not go to church that day.

Hawa age 15 lived with her uncle and his wife alongside several other children including the couple biological children. Hawa has to compete for attention from her Uncle’s wife who is more concern about her biological kids than any other kids in the home.

Though she attends school, the 15-year old says, when she sees her menstruation, she leaves school for a week because the kind of towel her aunt gave her. “When I am receiving, the cloth I can use is so big and so I can be embarrassed, for that reason I don’t attend classes,” she says.

Hawa is pleading for the price of sanitary pads to be reduced so that every woman can afford.

Hawa said it is time that NGO raised funds to secure and donate sanitary pads to girls in all parts of the countries specifically rural areas. 

Said Hawa, “We don’t want to use cloth, but that is what we have, and it is time that NGO prioritizes working with young women in educating them on menstrual hygiene, we also ask them to help provide hygienic pad to improve our well-being.”

For her part Comfort, a resident of Royesville, Montserrado County, acknowledges that sanitary material is too expensive for some. The 29-year-old woman with three girls is worried that if the prices of sanitary pads are not reduced it will be difficult for women who cannot afford it. She placed the blames squarely on Government.

“If the government can be able to pay for the free condoms being distributed around the country, I believe it can do the same for girls’ sanitary products.”

Kemah Sackie- 18-year-old only access to sanitary pads is by stealing from her older sister and that is once in a while if it is available to her sister.

“Sometimes if I want to act like big jue (girl) I can steal my big sister pad to used Kotex because you know the towel can be seen in the clothes as compare to the cortex, but when I am in the yard, I can use cloth,” She says.

Kemah said she has never purchased sanitary pads since she made an attempt in 2017 but could not afford the price, “I just knew that the price was going to increase, so I decided not to ask for it again.”

One major factor that keeps girls from getting sanitary napkins (pads) is because it has become a business for those who produce pads rather than a health and social need for all school girls. In some parts of the United States of America, pads are given to students free whenever they on their menstruation period, while Liberian girls have to either buy their pads or make them.

Menstruation is a natural process, but in most parts of the world, especially in Africa, it is a taboo and rarely talked about. It has also been largely neglected by sectors focusing on sexual and reproductive health and education.

As a result, the practical challenges of menstrual hygiene are made even more difficult by socio-cultural factors and several young women and girls continue to be denied their rights to health, dignity and gender equity.

Women and girls are often excluded from decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing while men who sit at the decision-making table find menstrual hygiene a difficult subject to talk about. Even when gender inequalities are addressed, deeply embedded power relations and cultural taboos persist.

At the household level, women generally have little control over whether they have access to a private latrine or money to spend on sanitary materials.

Young girls often grow up with limited knowledge of menstruation because their mothers and other women shy away from discussing the issues with them.

Adult women may themselves are not be aware of the biological facts or good hygienic practices, instead of passing on cultural taboos and restrictions to be observed.

Men and boys typically know even less, but it is important for them to understand menstrual hygiene so they can support their wives, daughters, mothers, students, employees, and peers.

Taboos surrounding menstruation exclude women and girls from many aspects of social and cultural life as well as menstrual hygiene services.

Such taboos include not being able to touch animals, water points, or food that others will eat, and exclusion from religious rituals, the family home, and sanitation facilities and as a result, women and girls are often denied access to water and sanitation when they need it most.

Dr. John Mulbah said it is important that women used a hygienic pad during menstruation because using unhygienic pad must leave them to minor and major complications.

He said the minor complications of using unhygienic pad include skin rashes around their urinary area. “Unhygienic pad is not treated well and they do not absorb menstrual flow as compare to the hygienic pad so women will be exposed to bad odor,” said Dr. Mulbah.

He furthers that such odor can lead to stigmatization by their (young women) friends and such can lead to psychological effect.

Dr. Mulbah named the major complication as a pelvic inflammatory disease that is, young women will be exposed to many chronic infections that will lead to infidelity. 

“Imagine when a lady cannot conceive because of the infidelity problem, she is sometimes rejected by her partner and that leads him to another home,” he said.

The luminary Gynecologist explained that the Ministry of Health should prioritize women’s health and that is about reproductive services.

“You cannot improve reproductive services without educating young women on using a hygienic pad, so it’s time that the Ministry of Health prioritizes education and awareness in informing young women or using a hygienic pad,” He narrates.

He continues, “The pad should be available and accessible and affordable, ‘You can’t take the pad to Fesaybu in Lofa and inform women to buy it at US$10, it should be affordable that will contribute to the well-being of young women.”

The Ministry of health current 2018/19 budget is US 63,363,845, while 2017/18 reflected US$44,306,339.

Facia Harris, Executive Director of Paramount Young Women (PYWI) says the lack of access to a sanitary pad is a human rights issue, therefore attaining to it must be prioritized as a human rights issue. Pads must be accessible and available. 

She said, “No girl must stay away from school and or any other activity because of lack of proper means to cope during menstruation.”

“Often times, girls stay home from regular classes because of the pad to contain the blood to avoid her uniform being stained with blood which subsequently puts her in a position of being stigmatized,” she said.

Madam Harris furthers that reduction in the tariff on pads and or the materials to produce locally sanitary pads are essential on the realization of girls and women sexual reproductive health and rights.

She states that PYWI is running mentoring clubs in Secondary schools adding that the lack of affordability of pads is a continuous issue expressed by female students.

“If even they managed to probe up when their alternative pad (piece of un-sanitized cloth) gets soaked, there is no extra pad to change. The best option is to skip classes for the days,” said Madam Harris.

Caroline Bowah of Medica Liberia said the sanitary pad should be recognized as part of sexual & reproductive health rights. 

“Over and over we see how menstruation taboos have prevented women and girls from active participation in their daily lives. They are considered unclean and “not fit enough” which to me is gender discrimination.”

She continues, “Social practices such as prevent women and girls from fetching water, cooking and being involved in religious activities perpetuate the discrimination against women and girls. In some instance, young girls are teased at schools. “

Madam Bowah said the cost of menstrual products poses risks to the health and safety of vulnerable women and girls.

She furthers that because of the lack of income to purchase menstrual pads, they improvise using materials that put their health at risk, and in some cases leading to severe health consequences such as dysmenorrhea.   

“In other instances, young girls would drop out of school for lack of pads or because they don’t want to be embarrassed or teased by boys in the schools. Therefore, it makes it imperative that the GOL provide support towards menstrual pads as a human rights issue,” Madam Bowah noted.

Note: This is an OXFAM and FeJAL reporting partnership, however, the views herein are not of any of the partners.