Fourteen-year-old Opeyemi Adedeji was one of countless boys in the Nigerian capital, Lagos, who teased female classmates about their periods, in a country where more than 37m women and girls are unable to afford menstrual hygiene products.
In Nigeria – as is the case in many countries across the world – period poverty, and girls’ subsequent fear of being ridiculed and shamed by peers like Opeyemi and others if they stained their school uniform with menstrual blood, drives many young women to miss school everyday.
But it’s the unique work of another NGO, Padbank Nigeria, that has impacted Opeyemi, by bringing boys into a conversation which they’re normally asked to leave, and making them part of the solution to fighting stigma.
Since attending a day-long training course by Padbank’s team at his public secondary school last July, Opeyemi not only stopped teasing girls about menstruating, but would also offer to help, or ask a girl to help, if he learnt that a female classmate was suffering because of her period.
“I think the reason why boys laugh when they know a girl is on her period or stained is because they don’t understand what is happening,” he told The Ferret.
“Rather than just cautioning boys about making jest [fun] of females on their period, I think educating them is important.”
Learning not to shame
Before the Padbank training, Opeyemi says he didn’t really know what a period was, and why or how it happened. Now he can give a detailed explanation of menstruation, he says, and knows enough to educate his friends and ensure that other boys don’t take part in shaming girls about their periods.
Driven by curiosity to attend the session announced in school, the boys and girls in his class learned things they aren’t normally taught, either in textbooks or even at home. At the session young people get help to understand a woman’s reproductive system, why girls menstruate, how to track their cycle and period-related diseases and disorders.
“I have always thought that menstruation is just blood,” said Opeyemi. “I was surprised when they explained that menstruation is not just blood but an egg being released, and how the shedding of the egg could cause cramps,” he explains. “I learned that menstruation and everything going on in the female body could even affect their mood, it was interesting actually, everyone wanted to join in the talk.”
He says he thinks more boys and girls should learn what he learned. “A lot of boys don’t know anything,” he adds, noting that some did giggle throughout the talk.
Twenty-six-year-old biology undergraduate, Ibrahim Faleye – Padbank’s founder – says this was one of his main motivations for starting the NGO in 2018. He wanted to help boys learn and to stop them shaming girls.
Since their first school outreach that year, the initiative has held sessions with 2,000 girls and 1,500 boys in Lagos, and the neighbouring state of Ogun.
He notes that boys are sometimes hesitant to take part but that Padbank’s volunteers are used to it and get around it “by using a fun approach”, in which jokes and casual lingo is used.
“We also catch them young,” he adds, before cultural norms and adolescent teasing have become ingrained. Some boys’ natural curiosity prompts them to join, he says, which encourages others.
Fighting period poverty and stigma
According to Faleye, Padbank takes a two-pronged approach – trying to eliminate stigma through school and community outreach activities involving both boys and girls, and helping girls suffering from period poverty by handing out reusable and disposable pads, which they buy or receive through donations.
“Because [the] majority of Nigeria’s population are in the rural setting… the dominant attitude of people towards menstruation and menstrual hygiene is that of an abnormal bodily physiology,” says Dr. Abdulhakeem Mamman Ngulde, a senior registrar in psychiatry at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Maiduguri. “It is considered a taboo,” he explains.
Pointing to boys’ “significant role” in causing stigma and discrimination, Dr. Abdulhakeem clarified that “if, as perpetrators, these individuals change their orientation towards something positive, this will go a long way towards boosting the self esteem of girls who are often discriminated against”.
Across the world, period poverty and stigma around menstruation are common, and Nigeria is no exception. Around a quarter of women and girls living in Nigeria struggle to manage their periods, and inflation due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further pushed up the prices of both pads and tampons throughout the world.
Inadequate sanitation in schools is another major issue. In 2021, fewer than two in 10 schools in Nigeria had basic hygiene provisions such as handwashing facilities with soap. Some girls are forced to use fabric scraps or newspaper to try to soak up the blood.
“I see people use banana leaf to menstruate, I have seen carton [cardboard], I have seen them use foam,” Fadeye says.
The obstacles to going to school or participating in other activities while having a period can be so high that girls can even miss important national exams and jeopardise their future opportunities simply because they’re menstruating.
In Scotland legislation introduced in August 2022 means everyone has the right to access period products for free.
One pad at a time
For Faleye, periods have always been a normal part of life – he grew up in a household full of women, with his mother, two sisters, and female cousins who visited during holidays. Since childhood, he was sent out shopping to buy pads for his sisters, highly unusual in a country where periods are seen as nothing to do with men or boys – and worse, dirty or shameful.
“At the age of 10 or 11, [my elder sister] started sending me to get her menstrual products. I thought it was a normal thing for everybody. I didn’t really know it was something shameful,” he says, explaining how the idea of Padbank came about.
“I was educated about what menstruation was, I didn’t see it as a big deal. Only for me to grow up and find out that what I don’t see as a big deal was a sort of heavy subject outside [my family]. Even ladies don’t talk about it,” adds the young man who takes pride in being known today as “The Pad Man of Lagos”, for fighting menstrual stigma.
Five years since it began, Padbank today has a core team of 10 part-time staff and over 200 volunteers who work throughout Lagos and Ogun.
The school outreach has evolved to include volunteer doctors and nurses who offer medical advice to girls in private if they wish, and each girl who participates also receives a menstrual kit, consisting of reusable and disposable pads, information leaflets and a data sheet that will allow them to track their periods, create a menstrual history, and plan for their next period.
Aside from handing out pads during outreach activities, Padbank also supports 800 girls with pads every month. All of the activities are funded by grants, personal donations, or crowdfunding through family and friends.
Working with resistance
Sometimes they still get pushback, says 28-year-old social studies graduate, Ibrahim Lanre, who has been volunteering with Padbank for three years.
“Some people feel it is not our place to be involved in this, but rather leave it to females,” he says. “But the fact is that we all have sisters, mothers and even cousins who are females.
“Females don’t shame their fellow females for having their period. It is the males that sometimes make it awkward. So why not just normalise the conversation so that everyone is okay to talk about it?”
He says it often takes time for girls to get used to talking about periods with a man too, but he says making them laugh and creating a relaxed atmosphere helps. “Having a guy talk sometimes fascinates the girls too. They want to know how much you know, so they ask you more questions.”
Although Padbank and other initiatives are working hard to end stigma and poverty, there is only so much they can do amidst a much-needed, yet absent, larger systemic change. According to one estimate, Nigerians spend over 56 per cent of their income on food alone – the highest in the world – leaving little left over to provide for the monthly menstrual hygiene needs of girls and women.
“[The] government can make deliberate policies to support availability of pads free of charge to the populace,” notes Dr. Abdulhakeem, who suggested a tax rebate, or subsidies be offered in the form of free raw materials or free electricity be given to companies manufacturing sanitary pads, to lessen the cost.
“[The] government can mandate its agencies such as [the] Nigerian Television Authority or [the] Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria to come up with societal orientation programmes that will improve awareness,” he added. “This will go a long way in changing the narrative.”.
This article was written in collaboration with Egab. It is part of a year-long solutions journalism project between Greater Govanhill Magazine and The Ferret.
Mind the health gap will collaborate with local communities to report on the way inequality leads to health disadvantages and shorter lives. But it also aims to look at the impact across Scotland, and to take inspiration from across the world, including the global south.
We consulted with local agencies in Govanhill, health experts across Scotland and surveyed Ferret and Greater Govanhill readers online. They highlighted the importance of covering health topics that impact on women.
This project is funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator and is a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.