For many menstruators in Nigeria, the struggle to dispose of used sanitary pads and other menstrual products is as real as the traffic on Lagos roads. Across Nigeria, women and girls, who constitute 52 per cent of Nigeria’s population, struggle with managing menstrual waste. In our country, managing menstrual waste is driven by a need to conceal traces of blood or evidence of menstruation due to decades of shame, silence, stigma and taboo.
Despite its importance, the paucity of data and information on the subject further reinforces the above-stated. The need to make menstruation invisible in all spheres of life must stop for effective menstrual waste management. It’s time to break the silence and call stakeholders to action about this issue.
Menstrual waste management is the collective responsibility of all stakeholders; the Federal Government at all levels, the Federal Ministry of Environment, the Federal Ministry of Education, the Federal Ministry of Health, lawmakers, menstruators, manufacturers of menstrual products, non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs, educators and researchers. In addition, the World Health Organisation declared May 28 as the world’s menstrual hygiene day; a day to raise awareness about the importance of menstrual health and hygiene. In line with the theme of this year’s menstrual hygiene day, ‘we are committed,’ our collective commitment is required to address this problem that concerns all of us.
Menstrual waste consists of blood, menstrual product packaging, and used menstrual absorbents, including cloth, disposable sanitary pads, tampons, and other materials used to absorb menstrual blood. Menstrual waste management involves the methods used to dispose, reduce, and reuse menstrual waste. Survey shows that menstrual waste materials in Nigeria are wrapped in polythene bags, thrown in the trash or the river, used for unhealthy extended periods, flushed in the toilet, burnt and buried. Some of this waste ends up in landfills, incinerators, rivers, and gutters.
Disposable sanitary pads, tampons, and single-use menstrual packages commonly manufactured, sold, and used in Nigeria contain cellulose, super absorbent polymers, plastic covering, and adhesives. Many of these non-biodegradable materials remain in the environment for 500-800 years polluting the environment. In addition, burning menstrual materials with plastic components releases harmful toxic chemicals such as dioxin into the atmosphere.
Inadequate menstrual waste management is a public health and environmental problem affecting all persons, irrespective of gender and menstruating status. Research shows that when these pads and tampons are flushed down the toilet, they become soaked with liquid, swell, and cause sewage to back up into the room, posing a significant health risk. Menstruators who live near river banks dump menstrual waste into water bodies, contaminating them. These blood-soaked materials serve as a haven for germs and harmful microorganisms. Used sanitary products that have been soaked in an infected woman’s or girl’s blood may contain hepatitis and HIV viruses, which can survive up to six months in soil and remain contagious.
A move towards sustainable menstrual waste management effectively implemented by stakeholders is essential to combat these identified challenges in Nigeria. Sustainable menstrual waste management consists of means and techniques to keep menstrual materials in use for as long as possible and minimise the amount of waste disposed of in landfills, rivers, or burnt. Reusable menstrual products are a step closer to sustainable menstrual waste management. Products like menstrual cups and reusable sanitary napkins can be maintained and reused, minimising the volume of menstrual waste. However, these products also require that menstruators have adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities to maintain them.
Also, entrepreneurs and menstruators should consider the importance of responsible manufacturing and use of menstrual products. Manufacturers of menstrual products investing in reusable or paper product packaging is a means to manage menstrual waste sustainably. Paper consists of biodegradable material, which makes paper waste quickly decompose, unlike plastic waste which remains for 500-800 years without disintegrating. Reusable product packages can be reused by menstruators even after using the bag’s content, reducing the volume of menstrual waste.
Communication and education are vital tools to promote sustainable menstrual waste management in Nigeria, yet menstrual education makes little or no appearance in school curriculums. The Federal Ministry of Education should incorporate menstrual education that includes information on menstrual health, products, and the importance of sustainable menstrual waste management in the primary, secondary and tertiary school curriculum. The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Environment should prioritise public enlightenment communication, policies and education on such practices. Also, stakeholders need to liaise with lawmakers for policies and regulations that guarantee sustainable menstrual waste management.
Nigerian researchers should be encouraged to research efficient techniques to incorporate sustainable waste management practices into the routine day-to-day activities of Nigerian menstruators. Likewise, international organisations and non-governmental organisations should not only be concerned with the provision and distribution of menstrual products but also with the management of menstrual waste. With our practices, collaborations and culture, we must create and sustain an environment where sustainable menstrual practices are feasible for all stakeholders. Collaboration between stakeholders, including the menstruators and the government, is necessary for research, policy, and practices that enable sustainable menstrual waste management.
- Agha Rita is a PhD student and researcher at the Australian National University