The Republic of Madagascar is an island off the southeast coast of the African continent with a population of roughly 26 million people. Only 10 percent of the Malagasy people (Malagasy means “native or inhabitant of Madagascar”) are able to practice proper sanitation. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), more than 58 percent of Madagascar’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. Back in 2018, it was even found that one-third of the country’s public schools did not have working toilets.
Madagascar is among the ten poorest countries in the world. The lack of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities is a pressing issue. Its impact on the Malagasy women poses a separate kind of humanitarian crisis: proper menstrual hygiene. Two principal elements are preventing these women from gaining greater access to menstrual hygiene supplies: the nation’s water and health crisis as well as old taboos and myths. Of course, the cost of things like ordinary pads poses a financial obstacle to the problem as well. Today, however, we are going to focus on the lack of infrastructure and education surrounding this issue.
In many ways, Madagascar’s sanitation and water crisis is an enormous handicap for the country. The millions of women living in these conditions often adopt the following routine when on their period: they use a reusable cloth as a sanitary napkin each time they menstruate. This reusable cloth, however, is often taken from used items of clothing or secondhand sources. Reusable fabric in this form presents a risk to the woman’s health because the material becomes worn out and could potentially infect her. This is not a safe way to handle one’s period, but for many Malagasy women, it is the only way.
To make matters worse, there is a plethora of myths and taboos surrounding this topic.
According to BBC reports, in certain regions of the country, it is believed that a woman should not shower while on her period. In fact, the whole idea of menstruation is seen as a sign that the woman has done something wrong. That explains why in many regions of Madagascar, it is said that once a young girl begins menstruating, it is considered acceptable for her brother to slap her across the face. This belief reinforces the idea that a woman should be punished for menstruating.
In a special news report published by France 24 this past month, I was shocked by the sexism and ignorance in one man’s interview. A journalist for France 24 was conducting a special report about menstruation taboos in Madagascar. She followed his wife for an entire day to learn about her routine when menstruating. The interview with her husband filmed later that evening left me astonished.
“Our Creator has situated man as the king. When my wife presents me with my meal she must kneel down before me […] Even if the woman has all the money and all the force of the world, she must always remain inferior so that she can have a good life. Even a son may order his mother to do as he wishes. That’s the law. Women will always be inferior to men, no matter where you go.”
These are the words of that Malagasy woman’s husband. His mentality is synonymous with the country’s lack of education regarding women’s health. In order to override the taboos and myths of Malagasy society, it is necessary to begin educating all inhabitants. That means both men and women.
This is where a young 21-year-old Boy Scout named Safidy Randriamitantsoa enters our story. It’s one hell of a name, I know, but he is also one hell of a scout.
Back in 2015, Randriamitantsoa launched a project. It aimed to break the menstruation taboo and to raise awareness and educate citizens about the realities of the menstrual cycle. More than anything, the Scouts want to open a dialogue with the Malagasy people and encourage greater communication. The project also works to distribute washable sanitary napkins to women in need. As previously mentioned, the cost of menstrual products and accessibility to these products is another challenge preventing women from being able to practice proper menstrual hygiene.
All of this information points to not only a lack of proper infrastructure, but also a severe disregard for the health and education of women. In order to battle the taboo of menstruation and the deeply ingrained inequality Malagasy women face, certain feminist associations have taken form.
In a rural southern village of the island, a woman named Tsaraze has become a central figure for the feminist cause. As president of the FBMIFA Association, Tsaraze founded her organization on the principle that women no longer have to depend on men. This idea of female emancipation is certainly enticing, but the reality remains unpromising. It is incredibly difficult for women in Madagascar to acquire the funds to break free from their husbands. The association’s message, however, is inspiring. Its mission allows for these women to feel sisterhood and support despite the inequality that resonates in every aspect of their lives.
Gender inequality in Madagascar is prevalent even in the early stages of schooling. The absence of working toilets and minimal education about menstrual health are a recipe for disaster. France 24 found that in sub-Saharan Africa, one out of ten girls misses a month of school per year due to her period. These young students have little to no access to proper restrooms. They do not have the means to purchase menstrual products. Furthermore, the myths surrounding cleanliness while on one’s period leave them feeling dirty and humiliated.
No young woman should feel humiliated because of a perfectly natural and healthy phenomenon.
Society should not shame women into believing their period is an indication of their inferiority. Instead, society needs to gain an appreciation for the female body. And, no, not an appreciation that sexualizes or taints feminine beauty and power.
Malagasy society, much like every society in our world, needs to recognize the value and worth of all humans. A woman’s period is a sign that she is healthy. A woman’s period is a sign that she is growing and becoming stronger. When a young girl menstruates for the first time, it should be a moment of growth and excitement. It should not generate feelings of fear and helplessness.
Period poverty is real. Organizations like Mpanazava Eto Madagasikara (Girl Scouts of Madagascar), WaterAid, FBMIFA and Safidy Randriamitantsoa’s project are all positively contributing to the improvement of menstrual hygiene in Madagascar. If you are interested in learning more about their cause and mission, I recommend conducting your own research about the prevalence of this issue.
Education and awareness have improved in the past several years. Nevertheless, there is a long way to go before each Malagasy woman can feel safe, clean, and empowered when on her period.