"Your whole life is a whole joke. There are jokes about girls getting stained, jokes about how girls behave and if you are always the brunt of the joke, you don’t feel you have a say in anything that concerns you."
“Your whole life is a whole joke. There are jokes about girls getting stained, jokes about how girls behave and if you are always the brunt of the joke, you don’t feel you have a say in anything that concerns you.”
Karo Omu doesn’t want to preach the ‘women can do anything’ narrative, she just wants a society where women can just be.
The activist and philanthropist is the Founder of the non-profit organization, Sanitary Aid Initiative; a humanitarian and advocacy body that promotes the sanitary health of the girl-child across Nigeria. She sat down with YNaija’s Toluwanimi Onakoya, to talk about society’s culture of silence and its role in engendering period stigma and rape culture.
- What is period stigma, and what are the beliefs/myths that help perpetuate it?
Period stigma is all the negative taboos and conversations associated with periods. They are just things that make periods seem dirty; like something you hide. For instance, when someone is acting up. People ask ‘is this your time of the month?’ Those things are just thrown around to make it seem like periods are unnatural. All those things wrap up the idea of menstruation in a negative light that makes us stay silent about menstruation, makes us put like 10 wraps around pads. All of these things have created myths like ‘you can’t tell anybody when you are on your period’, ‘if your monthly visitor is not here you are doomed’.
I mean for something so natural it’s so sad that it is passed in that light. There’s a village in Venezuela where when a woman is on her period, she has to sleep in a hut outside. There’s also the role of religion, different religions have things about women being unclean. Those things are wrapped up together to make your regular bodily function seem so dirty and all these myths vary from society to society. There are parts of the world where if a woman has seen her period, it means she’s ripe for marriage.
Periods have had bad PR over the years. Periods are so important because a lot of our reproductive health is centred around that and reproduction is literally how all of us are here. So for something that is so important, it’s just disgraceful that it has gotten such bad PR and myths associated with it. Imagine you have your period for like three days a month; so three days you are unclean, you are useless, you are disgusting. It is just ridiculous. Those are the things that combine and equals period stigma.
2. Your organisation, Sanitary Aid Organisation, apart from sharing menstrual products, also educates women on female hygiene. What are the most touching or troubling accounts you’ve heard from women you’ve interacted with that highlights period stigma?
Sadly, I’m not on the ground as I would have loved to be but I’m privileged to hear a good number of stories that come from women and girls all over Nigeria. Yes, there’s quite a bit. For me what has stood out is going into a community and this is the first pack of pads they are getting. It’s just sad and some of these girls are 16- they’ve had their periods for the last five years. No one had ever discussed periods with them.
We’ve been to communities where some girls have said ‘oh, we know about periods and pads but we can’t afford it.’ So the big girls in the community will sleep with men to give them 400/500 naira to buy pads ahead of their period. Some communities reject education because they see education as westernization. There have been girls that have said they’ve been seeing their periods for a long time but have not told anyone about it because what it means for them is that ‘I have to change the way that I’m living my life, so I’m hiding it so that my lifestyle as I know it does not change’.
There are people that had not been spoken to about periods before. We’ve been to a couple of schools that had children with disabilities and nobody had never talked to them about their periods before. I find this particularly sad because where do you start from if you’ve never been told about your periods or if you’d never been advised.
3. How do you think it (period stigma) contributes to rape culture?
Period stigma and the culture of silence are generally associated with things that concern women. If you can’t talk about your periods, about sexual desire, or about having a crush on a boy or a girl, when you get raped you can’t talk about that either. A lot of things associated with women’s bodies have just been guarded. The culture of silence makes a woman in every situation feel like she’s the one that should be ashamed. She is the one that is dirty if she has sex, if she’s raped, if she’s assaulted on the road. Everything still falls back on from the shoulder of little girls who grow to be silent women who just continue in that culture.
That’s what it does.
Your whole life is a whole joke. There are jokes about girls getting stained, jokes about how girls behave and if you are always the brunt of the joke, you don’t feel you have a say in anything that concerns you.
While it seems like it’s just negligible, that’s what builds up the way many girls grow up to see themselves- growing up to be people who are silent about their struggles. When #Metoo started, women were talking about the assault they’d experienced 30years ago and people were like why didn’t you talk about it since. Because nobody else was talking about it!!
All these things are related. In a society where its shameful to talk about their periods, it is also shameful to speak if you are assaulted. Nobody would speak about it, if nobody speaks about it.
4. In terms of representation, there are some women in power but they don’t seem to represent us or make policies that address our issue. What do you have to say to this?
There just needs to be more of them. It’s such a huge responsibility. When you are a woman everything that you do is a political statement. When do we get to just be? I get frustrated when there are women that are not representing other women, that are not feminists, that are not gunning for women empowerment. It’s frustrating to think about it.
But sometimes you have to think about the fact that we are never going to just be? Until we achieve equality and equity.
I agree that it always seems like women in power are not doing enough but there are just not enough people who back them up. If they bring out something, how many women are behind them to say ‘Yes! We are experiencing this.’ Of course, they are going to go there and continue to represent men’s interest because that is what is popular. Elite women deal with elite women issues before they come down to regular people. We have to say ‘how can we get more women elected into office?’, ‘how can we put our money behind more women?’.
Without representation, there is no way we are going to achieve equality. Every time you talk about women’s issues it’s about ‘where are the women?’ but anytime we talk about men’s issues it’s everybody’s problem. When it comes to reproductive rights, it affects everybody. It is a dent on society that we’re still having this conversation. The problem is with representation in our society.
5. In a lot of African cultures, menstruation is often associated with sexuality. How does this influence the increasing accounts of sexual violence targeted at underaged girls?
First of all, I think that sexually violent people are sexually violent people. Perverts are perverts. Pedophiles are pedophiles. Yeah, there’s a part society plays. Where they say that ‘she is developing breast, she is now a woman.’. But I don’t think that people that abuse underage girls want to know. I don’t think they want to know the girls’ age. There are people that are waiting to have their way with them and there are just people that are delinquents.
There are people who even target girls that have not seen their periods. I’ve seen situations where they’re targeting underage girls because there is less likely to be any repercussion- they are less likely to get pregnant. Women are preyed on every day no matter what is happening with them and their body. I never want to have a conversation where we still put the burden on the girls on the women so hard to not talk about this because I just believe that we are already saddled with too much.
6. Menstrual health and equity are significant factors in gender equality. How do you think the presence of period stigma showcases how society views women?
It’s such a huge barrier to face when the major religions in the country already say that women are not equal to men. They make it impossible for us to achieve that equity because there’s a whole group of women who don’t even believe that their rights should be fought for.
Without women’s issues being at the forefront, we are holding back half of our population. I remember when we started Sanitary Aid we got push back and this is coming from someone who got a lot of support. There was a truckload of women that said ‘I never thought about this’ and people started sharing their experiences. But there were also people that were like ‘Why can’t you by your pad. This doesn’t make sense.’ This is because most of them aren’t…well some of them were wicked but most of them had never thought about women in that light and all the things that women have to pay.
Even in advertising when you look at all the sanitary pad advertisements it’s like ‘look at how she runs well because she’s wearing this pad’. But it’s like nobody wants to run, what are you talking about? Without opening this conversation, women will always be viewed as they’re being weak.
7. Bringing it home to our present reality, how do you think the COVID-19 pandemic would affect people’s ability to manage their menstruation?
Personally, I know that we at Sanitary Aid, for example, have gone a whole three months where we didn’t do any outreaches and beneficiaries suffered from it. COVID 19 has taken away many incomes so there are women who could afford sanitary health materials who can no longer afford it. It has affected things like education. It has affected people who don’t have the resources to get online.
There’s reduced access to funding. This affects people, even for people from low-income communities who would have gotten some help. It’s just affected people on every level, particularly women who no longer have access to income, products, support, health materials. Remember that anything that affects the average person, affects poor people, disabled people even more. The people that used to support who’ve lost their source of income can no longer support other people. People are having to prioritise other things above menstrual hygiene health. One of the things I always advocate for is reusable pads. Apart from how it helps in terms of affordability, it also helps the environment.
8. Sanitary Aid Initiative frequently goes on outreaches, sharing pads but women menstruate monthly -these pads finish. What are your plans in combating period poverty in a sustainable way?
When we started we used to distribute disposable pads, now we distribute reusable pads. Reusable pads include cloth napkins but there are also other sustainable options. People need to try new things. This is another thing period stigma has done. People say ‘oh you touch your blood?!’. You touch your a*s when you poop. You don’t cry about it, you wash your hand when you finish. Is blood more disgusting than sh*t? I think not.
People just made it seem like our periods are disgusting and you can’t touch it.
Cloth napkins are really good and sanitary and they can last between 1 to 4 years. The more we do this work, the more we get more information. There are also menstrual cups that can be used. We share reusable pads now in communities where they have access to water to wash. We go into a community beforehand to try to see the best way to support them. Everyone should be using sustainable options.
9. What was that personal experience that shifted your perspective and caused a change from you identifying with a movement to actively participating in that movement?
I’ve always cared about women and children’s issues and people who couldn’t speak for themselves. When I had a little voice, I used it to complain about little things. I had founded another organisation previously that pushes for policies against child labour. But with Sanitary Aid it started as a conversation. There was a conversation about condoms being free and pads being expensive. I remember before then I had bought a pad for 150 naira every month, Always, and then I sent somebody one time to get me a pad and gave them 200 naira and they came back without change.
I remembered that moment for some reason. And then this conversation was happening and pads were now like 400 naira. I was like double?? In a recession? How are people coping? So when we started, we were like we’ll go to a couple of schools, IDP camps because I didn’t understand the scale of the situation then. So I had jumped in before understanding the scale of the issue then. It was kind of good because it opened my mind to listening to people. Everyday we are figuring it out and tailoring our activities to the communities that we meet based on their experiences. It’s really been a great learning experience for me.
To watch the full IG live interview with Karo Omu, click here. The YNaija #RapeCulture Special Series runs from September 15th to September 30th. Visit YNaija.com/Specials to catch up on all essays and excerpts from our Instagram interviews.
Toluwanimi Onakoya is a spirited writer, creative and videographer. Her biggest drive is to connect with people and depict tales using various forms of media.
Toluwanimi is available on Instagram and Twitter @nimi_onaks