"Every Woman in the Whole World has it"
Ramatou Hassan holds sessions with girl and boy students in Niger discussing the taboo subject of menstruation. Her goal is to keep girls healthy, in school and to destigmatize the monthly bleeding.
"Menstruation is a huge taboo in our society and there is a lack of knowledge which leads to a massive negative impact on girls' health, schooling and their future", explains Ramatou Hassan, 61, who retired a few months ago after working for 28 years in public service. The mother of six children lost her husband two decades ago and has been since the sole breadwinner of the family.
As in many other countries in the region, menstruation is traditionally seen as 'impure' and only 30% of girls in Niger have heard about menstruation before their first period, according to UNICEF-supported research in 2020.
"The big problem is that many of the parents do not talk about such issues", Ms. Hassan said when UNICEF met her in her home in Tahoua, the capital of the province with the same name. "That is where I come in: I sit down with the students and tell them 'I am a Grandma. Do we want to talk like a Grandma talks to her grandchildren? Is that fine with you?' That builds trust between us and gives us the space to talk about delicate issues."
"The first thing I tell them is that they are not sick, that this is not dirty, but that that every woman in the whole world has it."
"The first thing I tell them is that they are not sick, that this is not dirty, but that that every woman in the whole world has it. Secondly, I explain to them the functioning of the female cycle and that once they have their period, they can conceive children. But even if they can get pregnant, their bodies are not yet ready for giving birth healthily for the baby and the mother. Girls should avoid getting pregnant before they are 18 years old."
For many adolescent girls in Niger, menstruation is a source of stress, shame, embarrassment, confusion and fear and in a country where barely half of the people have access to clean water and nearly seven million children live in poverty, menstrual hygiene can be ever more challenging.
"My generation did not know anything about these things, and we used discarded pieces of fabric that we found in the trash. We were so ashamed that we dried the strips of fabric under the floor mats in the dirt. Many women got infections."
In a session at a school in Tahoua city on a Monday morning, she gives girls very practical guidance and tips how to deal with the monthly bleeding. She shows them different types of underwear or how to use strips of reusable fabric.
"Hygiene is so important! Carry your supplies in a plastic bag and wash the strips after use, dry them in the sun and iron them. At the end of your cycle, keep them in a clean place until next month. If you follow what I teach you, there is no reason not to go to school during your cycle!"
In her animated lecture in front of a class of six-graders she uses her index finger to underline important elements, jumps from French to the local language Haussa and back, writing the relevant terms on the blackboard with a swiftness acquired in the many years that she taught school.
Now a retiree doing these sessions for free, schools call Ms. Hassan to hold sessions like these several times a week and she recently even branched out into sensitization on environmental concerns and climate change.
In Niger, many girls do not dare to attend school during their monthly cycles and often they fall behind in their studies or stop going to school altogether. Ms. Hassan explained some of the reasons.
"If a girl does not come to school for three days in a row and the teacher asks her why she was missing, she cannot give an answer because it is such a taboo. Then the teacher will punish her and eventually the girl might just stop going to school altogether. I also hold sensitization sessions with teachers so that they are made aware of their responsibilities, too, of helping to keep girls at school."