It’s 2020, and naturally, tremendous advancements have been made across various spheres of society. From the prospect of self-driving cars and drones delivering medicines to rural areas to comparatively progressive politics and historic “firsts” for many disenfranchised groups, we’ve certainly come a long way. However, in the midst of all that progress, there is still one issue which continues to lag behind considerably and consistently, particularly in less developed countries: menstruation.
Candice Chirwa is a young Black woman on a mission to fiercely change the disempowering narratives and taboos that still shroud the issue of menstruation. The 24-year-old South African activist, who is endearingly known as the “Minister of Menstruation” on social media, wants young girls and women to not only accept but embrace their bodies fully in a society that insists on speaking in hushed tones about a perfectly normal biological process. Both Chirwa’s research and advocacy work with the UN and her award-winning NGO, QRATE, has focused on dispelling common myths about menstruating, removing the shame and stigma around it and giving menstruators the knowledge and tools they need to navigate their world through impactful workshops.
And when Chirwa isn’t collaborating with Lil-Lets, one of the biggest sanitary product brands on the continent, or co-authoring a bad-ass book titled Perils of Patriarchy, she’s dominating the TEDx stage and making sure that her audience, no matter how diverse or varied, leaves the room feeling comfortable and courageous enough to boldly shout the word “vagina”.
We caught up with Chirwa to discuss what initially compelled her to become a “period-positive” activist, her continued advocacy work with QRATE and what kind of world she imagines for menstruators.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did the desire begin for you to do this particular kind of advocacy work? When did that start for you?
A lot of people ask me, “Why menstruation? Why something that’s so private and things that we don’t talk about?” I think that’s primarily why I’m so intrigued by it. I’ve been a feminist from a very young age. I’ve always been someone who questions and challenges the way norms and stereotypes are, especially when it comes to the behavioral conditions that are set on women.When I reached the university space, I came across a lot of postcolonial feminists, Black feminists and womanist literature. I was just then more immersed into gender equality and looking at human rights with a gendered lens.
“I’ve been a feminist from a very young age.”
It was only when I turned 20 that I had a really cool opportunity to work at the United Nations and they were like, “It’s to do with research on menstruation,” and I was like, “Okay, this is interesting.” I had a brief understanding, at the time, that young girls couldn’t have access to sanitary pads. From a human rights perspective, it was really under-researched because of the taboos that surround it.
With the research for my Master’s, I then also came across the fact that when young girls start menstruating, they feel like they’re going to die. Now, I’m the type of person who, if I come across information and I feel that I can do something about it, I have to do something about it. I can’t just go day-to-day knowing that young girls feel this way about their bodies when I have this information to change the way they view themselves.
In 2020, do you feel that menstruation is still something that’s seen, societally, as being taboo or shameful?
For sure. A lot of the time, people feel that menstruation is a topic that should be private. In the most extreme and explicit forms, girls in countries like Nepal are basically told to not be seen during their menstruation. They have to go into isolation huts. They even have a word for it––chhaupadi. That sort of cultural practice led to, I think in 2017, a young girl passing away while she was menstruating because she was trying to keep herself warm. It turned out that the hut wasn’t well-ventilated so, by her starting a fire, she died.
“…a young girl actually passed away while she was menstruating because she was trying to keep herself warm.”
We’re not having these conversations with young people, in particular, about their bodies. We’re not having really critical conversations in the schools to say, “What content are you teaching young people, in particular, with regards to comprehensive sexuality education? What is the young boy child learning about puberty? What is the young girl child learning about puberty? What are they learning about consent?” It’s not just about pulling out a sanitary pad and screaming the word “vagina” at the dinner table.
The issue of menstrual health and menstrual hygiene evidently hasn’t had the kind of progress that we would like to see. What would you say are some of the real-life stumbling blocks?
Providing sanitary pads to a young girl who goes to school and her only form of sanitation is a pit latrine doesn’t help her. I think it’s a holistic approach when handling menstrual health management. In South Africa, where we’ve removed the luxury tax on sanitary products, young girls are still expected to go and buy these things. Our poverty line is so real that buying food or buying a pad is the choice when they’re both basic necessities. The fact that we have a government that still hasn’t prioritised that is bothersome.
It was only in 2018 that the Department of Women decided to hold the first menstrual health conference. That was at the behest of the officers working at the United Nations who had to peer literature review and send the report to the government. We don’t have a period-positive government, unfortunately. We also don’t have a very gender-equal government because women are still being killed, they are still being human trafficked, and there’s still no response to that.
Have nonprofit organisations become the lifeline, in terms of addressing menstrual health management, when compared to efforts by the government?
Definitely. You see NGOs putting in a lot of work in creating petitions, doing the hard work, really speaking to communities and addressing the issues that they have. NGOs are also barely even getting funding from the government. We’re sort of left on our own to just serve our community. I think entities like the UN, they do important work. WaterAid does very integral work by addressing sanitation.
NGOs like QRATE for example, decided to take their own initiative and say, “You know what? We’re just going to educate and empower the girl child. We’re going to educate and empower the youth and give them the necessary skills they need because we don’t want to wait for the government to do what we’re waiting for them to do.” So, I think it’s a matter of sometimes taking that sacrifice and doing it on your own.
Candice Chirwa facilitating a QRATE workshop for Blossom at the Sanctuary.Image supplied by Candice Chirwa.
What has been the biggest indicator or measure, for you, in terms of QRATE’s impact thus far?
QRATE was founded in 2018. We decided to start off with the menstruation workshops as a way to have these conversations about menstruation and to also create a fun and safe environment for the girl child when learning about their bodies. I think what is always important for me, is when the girls leave the workshop feeling very empowered about their bodies and being able to openly say the word “vagina”. That they can say, “This is my vagina. I know what I want for my vagina, and no one else can dictate what I want for my vagina.” That ownership is so powerful and important.
I think what was our biggest impact was a workshop we hosted last year on The Day of the Girl Child. It was for about 150 girls. I think that was a really great marker because we got different organisations and companies to provide what they could. We just want to change that narrative of how we see periods. When I see countries like the US, where young girls menstruate for the first time and have period parties, I think it’s integral especially in South Africa because young girls always feel afraid to talk about these things.
Candice Chirwa facilitating a QRATE workshop at a school. Image supplied by Candice Chirwa.
Whether on a personal front or with QRATE, what have been some of the collaborations that have been a highlight for you?
On a personal front, I really was happy to have collaborated with Lil-Lets. It was a few months-long contract, but we were really keen to launch this platform called Lil-Lets Talk. I think it was a really great platform for young adults, in particular, to just have a network of young menstruators ask questions, share experiences and not be alone. It was a great way of building a community and a support system for menstruators.
From QRATE’s perspective, I think COVID has been COVID. I realised that the communities that we usually do our workshops with generally don’t have the access to data. It was a very difficult decision to try and see whether we could have done online seminars, webinars or to continue our work online, but the communities that we speak to are basically informal settlements. They’re not even recognised by the government so they wouldn’t even have the means to actually go on Zoom, Facebook Live or YouTube to interact.
But I think with COVID, we’ve decided that we will do our workshops in person, but socially distanced. Each facilitator will have a maximum of 20 kids in an open space––a classroom or a hall. We’ve just basically remodeled our workshops to be social distance-friendly but still impactful-driven.
Describe your TEDx experience.
It was nerve-wracking because it was my first TEDx experience. I’ve always watched TED talks, always been enamoured by the women who would go onto the stage and just dominate it.
I think it was just about asking myself, “What is the message and what is the feeling I want the audience to leave with?” For me, in particular, I really wanted people to understand that menstruation is bigger than just us menstruating for seven days. It affects so many menstruators when we don’t speak openly about it. It affects experiences when we have pop culture ridicule it. It invalidates our experiences when we have adverts saying that when young girls menstruate, they get out of bed; they’re on the go; they’re ready to slay and then they menstruate blue liquid.
“I really wanted people to understand that menstruation is bigger than just us menstruating for seven days.”
I think that was just the messaging that I wanted people to leave with. It’s a human rights issue and it’s not just about blue liquid. We have to change the narrative on periods and it really was a great experience. It’s been really cool to say, “I have a TED talk on menstruation.”
Bad Blood | Candice Chirwa | TEDxWaterfallDrive
What kind of world do you imagine for menstruators?
When I think of a period-positive world, I think of the fact that when a young menstruator starts, they shouldn’t feel ashamed. They shouldn’t feel that it needs to be something for which they have to be isolated. I feel that this transition into adulthood should be celebrated.
I want young boys to understand the process of women’s menstruation. Having young boys learn about periods means that they can be a little bit more emotional, sensitive and understanding towards the process. They will never ever be in a position to bully and ridicule.
Having a period-positive world means that young menstruators, in particular, have the right infrastructure to manage their menstrual health so that they won’t ever have to contemplate using leaves or sand or paper or even cow dung. They can easily have that access to those products.