Engaging boys in menstrual hygiene management

An effort to break some of the social and cultural taboos associated with menstruation.

Tapuwa Mutseyekwa
A boy and a girl sit and talk in a classroom
14 March 2022

Jui, Western Area Rural District - With a school backpack strapped on his back, 15-year-old Abdul Sesay from Jui in Western Area Rural, waits patiently for his sister Daniella to come out so that they begin their daily routine of walking to school together. After a ten-minute wait and with no sign of Daniella, Abdul goes back indoors, only to see his sister in bed, clutching to her pillow and sobbing.

“I was surprised to see her still in bed and telling me that she would not be attending school.  I could not think of any problem that would make it difficult for her to attend school,” says Abdul, as he explains his reaction to seeing Daniella in this state. 

After a bit of probing from the concerned Abdul, Daniella coyly discloses that her menses had started, and she was afraid of going to school. Nobody had prepared Daniella for this day and hence her apprehension about leaving her room to face the world with this change happening in her body. 

Luckily, as one of five trained peer mentors from Maynard Secondary School, Abdul was able to provide the first level of support that Daniella needed for her to get up, manage her menstrual flow and head off to school.

“The first thing I did was to explain that menstruation was a normal part of growing up for girls and that she must not be scared or afraid when this process takes place. I then encouraged her to openly speak to our grandmother so that she gets money to buy pads. I also gave her information about the reusable pads, which she could collect from school,” says Abdul, as he explains how he helped Daniella to come to terms with her first experience of menstruating.

For many young girls across Sierra Leone, the start of menstruation typically means a loss of days in school. The inherent culture of silence about menstruation closes the door on girls to consult about this change taking place in their bodies. The memories of seeing other menstruating girls being mocked and shamed, especially by male colleagues, push many girls to stay away from school during this time.

A boy and a girl walk to school.
Abdul with his sister Daniella making their way to school.

Since 2019, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with support from the Government of Iceland has distributed 20,000 reusable sanitary kits to 269 schools in the Western Area Urban and Western Area Rural districts of Sierra Leone. To complement the distribution of the menstrual hygiene kits, 269 boys such as Abdul have also been empowered to be conduits of accurate information about menstruation and to lead in creating an environment free of mockery and shaming of girls who are menstruating.  Engagement meetings with boys from the target schools have helped Abdul and his peers to become more aware about the natural process that girls go through during puberty. The boys have also been enlightened on the important role they have in supporting girls during this time.

“In previous years boys did not have proper information about menstruation. There was a lot of mocking and laughing at girls, especially when the menstrual flow accidentally gets onto their uniforms. It is now easier for girls to be free at school during their menstruation because boys no longer laugh at them,” says a confident Abdul, whose new knowledge about menstruation is helping him to support his sister and other girls to experience safe, hygienic and dignified menstruation.   

Across the 269 schools in the Western Urban and Rural Districts, the combination of distributing reusable menstrual hygiene pads and engaging boys in menstruation management, is now helping to improve school attendance by girls as they can menstruate in a safe and dignified manner.

“Discriminatory social norms and some harmful cultural taboos can disrupt girls’ learning and participation in social activities,” says UNICEF Chief of Education, Celeste Staley. “This support from the Government of Iceland is helping to improve girls’ experiences of menstruation, while also promoting awareness and sensitivity among the boys so that girls can continue with their daily routines, even when they are menstruating.”

Apart from breaking the silence on menstruation, Abdul’s role as a peer mentor, is also helping to break some of the social and cultural taboos associated with menstruation.

“At first my grandmother found it odd that as a boy I would freely speak to my sister about menstruation. She even told me never to speak to my sister about this issue again. I am glad that she has moved from this way of thinking and is happy that I am there to support my sister during her menstruation.”