Menses and Fempads: Women Break the Taboo in the DR Congo

For ages, sexual issues have been a big challenge to women and girls. The traditions in this country, mostly in the villages, are highly discriminatory toward women and girls. In this part of the world, women and girls totally depend on men for every single need of theirs. This is because the Congo society is highly paternalistic. Men make the laws and they do everything possible to protect the laws; men get the lion’s share from those traditions that allow them almost everything. Women and girls are passive regarding those traditions. They are not able to change or oppose the men; and if they do, they will be taxed to have committed taboos. Once a woman or a girl is labeled this way, serious punishment follows her. Women and girls then become scared and intimidated by such sanctions; and this fear has caused the women and girls to abide to these traditions even though they are discriminated through them at a large scale.

The above reasons explain why women and girls, who were victims of rape during the unending wars in the country, were kept inside their homes for more than two decades. Ones born to raped mothers are regarded as social shame – especially when they are girl children. These women and girls, who were forced to deliver fatherless children, are regarded as a caste-away society by their families and communities.

The abandoned girl children born to raped mothers encounter many diverse struggles when growing. And at a given time these girls attained age, which results in having their monthly menstruation. Menstruation in Congo culture is connected to sex and sexual issues, and they are regarded highly private in most parts of the country. No woman or girl is allowed to discuss this matter in public, or let anyone know they are into their periods.

The women and girls in the villages, in most cases suffer, when they are in their periods. Besides the traditions, their level of poverty plays a high part in this issue. Some use parts of their torn clothes, while others use fibres of bananas for this purpose; both of these methods are found to be unhygienic. There are also many women and girls who have nothing but to stay inside their homes during the menstrual days. Women, who go to the fields to find an earning to feed the family, have to be inside their homes with no earnings for days. Girls, who are allowed to attend school usually, skip school each month on these days. This creates a negative impact on their development.

Tina [not her real name], a young girl from the village refers to the sanitary pads saying; “These things seem to be a real answer to our problems. Nobody in our families has ever used pads because we are poor; now we too have reached the age of menstruation. While some use their old clothes, we who cannot even afford to tear our old clothes to use for that [relating to periods] are forced inside homes. We have to waste a year in school when we miss exams due to this.”

The main issue in the villages of the DR Congo is that young girls are abandoned to themselves and even their parents do not address the issue at family level. The girls claim that the women in their families are never respected, and not given due value.

Even the language and terms used by women and girls to relate to sexual issues, are different, in the villages. They have their own vocabulary on this topic to avoid embarrassment, and use codes to explain. Due to this the others find it hard to decode their terms and to understand their language. The reason behind these uncommon code words is due to the harsh social norms that do not allow women to be open when conversing with regard to periods and anything related to it.

“No one is allowed to talk sexual topics in public, not even with our parents; our parents are not allowed, too. We learn things from our friends and sometimes from aunts, who also not clear and open with us. They tell us we have to take things as they are; and that is life. We are not considered as human beings in the villages, we are ignored and neglected”, says another girl who refers to herself as Linda [not her real name].

Though long trod traditions, prevent addressing of this issue both in public and within families there are a few people who understand the ill effects on women and girls living in the villages of the DR Congo. Initiatives have been put forward by some local and national organizations to support women to produce their own reusable sanitary pads or feminine pads which washed and dried in sun, could be reused several times, costing them less money. Making their own reusable pads will be an answer to the menstrual problems of women and girls.

Through this initiative not only do the women get to wear healthy pads during periods, but they also support other women to use them. Due to the low prices, and re-usability, women could find ways to afford the pads. This while generates income to women who produce these, also uplifts the lives of many women. Due to re-usability, these pads would also impact on the environment positively.

With the sex related taboos in these societies, the women shared their views hiding, and not revealing their identity. A middle aged woman from the village said, “If women can be given support to make those things, it will help us a lot too; we can then afford to buy them. We can the thing and go to the field to work, and our daughters could go to school without fear. We women have the capacity to learn to make these, if are supported; even our girls can do this.”

A member from the primary supporting organization in the village called the COFAPRI – Congolese Females Actions for Promoting Rights and Development [https://www.cofapri.org/] stated, “We think that, if these women can be trained in sewing, and then giving the needed resources, they can learn to sew their own pads with material. By this women will gain a skill that could be used in their lifetime, but their hygienic conditions too will become improved. Women also would learn to support each other through this.”

Empowering the women and girls, who have gone through prolonged negligence, helps them to hear each other, confide their problems in others, become stronger in difficult situations, and support other women who are face sufferings.

Empowering a woman or a girl implies in lifting up the entire community from the quagmire of underdevelopment. These reusable sanitary pads mean a lot to these women and girls in the villages of the DR Congo!

Bahati Valerie | DR Congo