Meghan Markle, before marrying into the Royal Family, was once a global ambassador for World Vision described in their UK website as the world’s largest international children’s charity from 2016 to 2017. Her involvement with the organization saw her visit countries such as Rwanda in East Africa and India. Her visit to Mumbai and Delhi in 2017, was particularly aimed at promoting gender equality and access to proper hygiene and education with the girl child in mind. A resurfaced video of Meghan during her visit to India, shows her at a school which had just benefitted from new toilet facilities.
The future Duchess of Sussex would go on to document this trip to India in an essay for Time Magazine aptly titled Meghan Markle: How Periods Affect Potential which first appeared on the 8th of March 2017. In this essay, Meghan detailed the attitudes surrounding menstruation and menstrual hygiene in developing countries and why creating awareness coupled with relevant policy making, could greatly ease the suffering while ensuring girls remained at school stating;
“Based on societal ignominy in the developing world, shame surrounding menstruation and its direct barrier to girls education remains a hushed conversation. As a result, both household dialogue and policy making discussions often leave Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) off the table.”
In 2016, a UNESCO report had estimated that 1 in 10 girls in sub-saharan Africa were absent from school during their menstruation cycle. Meghan’s visit to India in 2017 as a World Vision ambassador was indeed greatly timed and in her essay, she equally noted;
“One hundred and thirteen million adolescent girls between the ages of 12-14 in India are at a risk of dropping out of school because of the stigma surrounding menstrual health.”
Fate had it that I be born and raised in urban areas. In our time, as pre-teens in Kenya, there indeed was a realization of the need for proper menstrual hygiene awareness. As a result, many girls including myself, benefitted from school visits by the Always Pads female employees on a mission to educate us more on what to expect, how to handle it and how to dispose our used sanitary towels. It must have been a welcome relief for many parents with daughters then who were just about to get their first period or had already started menstruating.
Interestingly, whenever these ladies showed up for a talk, in keeping with most African traditions which insist on men being left out of female matters or the societal ignominy which Meghan mentions in her essay, I cannot tell which, the first thing they would do, was ask all the boys to leave. And so it was that the girls who were fortunate enough to benefit from these educative visits learned, but the boys did not. I would be reminded of this in later years when I started realizing the little knowledge that many men in our society had concerning the same.
On a visit to Uganda in 2017, I stayed in a place where we had to buy water for use and there was a single dad raising pre-teen girls and boys. Once as I was doing my laundry in preparation for my departure the following day, one of his daughters seemed to be watching me keenly. Just as I was about to finish and pour all the water I had used, she approached me timidly and requested that I give her the used water to launder her own clothes.
I remember immediately being concerned that a girl in Kampala, the capital city, would be lacking in clean water to wash her own clothes to the extent of borrowing the neighbors. I equally found myself wondering if she had started her period and if she was in need of sanitary towels. It was something I even shared with my hosts knowing that a single dad may not be very well equipped, to educate a daughter on proper menstrual hygiene and provide money to ensure she had clean water to bathe and launder her clothes.
When raising awareness on the same particularly in developing countries, it is important to note that there are the rural and equally the urban areas, each with their own set of problems. In rural areas, there may be a lack of easily accessible clean water as well as sanitary towels with women and girls being forced to improvise items to use during that time of the month. Without water, it is indeed difficult to maintain proper menstrual hygiene.
And keeping tradition in mind, which is more stressed on in the villages than in the cities, women and girls may not be able to speak out and detail what they are undergoing, unless someone else in a charitable position shows up and encourages them to speak up. It is here that women like Meghan Markle, acting as ambassadors for humanitarian organizations supporting the same are the much needed figures.
In the urban areas, we have women and girls in slum areas who can barely afford the sanitary towels or tampons, which tend to be more expensive than the former, on supermarket shelves. Again, just like their rural counterparts, these women and girls may be forced to improvise items or the school-going ones to skip school on their menstrual days. Imprisoned women also suffer greatly from lack of enough provision of sanitary towels which has seen church organizations among others, develop a culture of donating the same to women prisons in my country. There is equally the debate of sub-standard sanitary towels being sold to women in developing countries.
A notable and much needed debate on this, spearheaded by @scheafferoo, a Kenyan Afro-Politico-Feminist happened quite recently on Twitter, with women in East Africa complaining of the Always brand of pads, which tends to be different from what is sold to women in the developed world. Many complained of the burning and itching they suffered after using the same. To discover that even empowered women in developing countries who can afford to buy sanitary towels and proper menstrual hygiene, still suffer from being forced to use products that harm them, is a realization that menstrual hygiene activism and policy making is far from over.
In 2017, the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, signed a bill into law which enables school girls who have reached puberty in public basic institutions in the country, to receive free sanitary towels from the government. Under the Basic Education Ammendment Act, the government with this noble initiative aims to reduce the number of girls who miss school as a result of having their periods. In a progressive move, the law demands that the government should equally provide proper areas for the disposal of sanitary towels, which is yet another problematic issue in developing countries and the need for efficient toilet facilities.
Many people in my country have in recent times taken up menstrual hygiene activism deep into the villages and slum areas. ZanaAfrica Foundation is one such non-profit organization with the founder, coincidentally also named Megan, providing affordable sanitary towels in Kenya with her Nia line of pads. For women who may be low income earners and equally lacking in appropriate environments to dispose used sanitary towels, an alternative has been provided with the menstrual cups manufacture. The Grace Cup founded by Ebby Weyime, a Kenyan actress, model and entrepreneur provides re-usable menstrual cups that can last up to 10 years and therefore, save women and girls the amount of money they need to keep buying sanitary towels.
By Meghan Markle agreeing to spearhead such a project as an ambassador of World Vision in her Actress days, she brought to the fore a subject that is very crucial in ensuring that girls are comfortable enough to remain in school and study. She selflessly gave her time and attention to the women and girls in India, who felt safe enough to open up and say what they have been facing without adequate facilities. When she would later sit at a panel on International Women’s Day 2019 in her capacity as the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan still pushed for the empowerment of girls through education. By powerful women constantly lending their voices to subjects otherwise considered taboo, they are indeed empowering a generation that will break down unnecessary barriers.