Image supplied by Candice Chirwa.

Candice Chirwa: 'Menstruation is More than Just Bleeding for Seven Days.'

In Conversation with Candice Chirwa: 'Menstruation is More than Just Bleeding for Seven Days.'

South African activist Candice Chirwa, the 'Minister of Menstruation', speaks to us about what a period-positive world looks like, the challenges menstruators face even in 2020 and her important advocacy work with QRATE.

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 - OkayAfricaCandice 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 - OkayAfricaCandice 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 | TEDxWaterfallDrivewww.youtube.com

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.

Follow Candice Chirwa on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Music

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Enter Jessica Opare-Saforo, who is redefining what this means with Biker Girls Gh, a women-led biker collective she founded in 2018. In a fairly conservative society like Ghana, to see women riding around freely attracted quite the attention.

However, be it one of indignance or admiration, Opare-Saforo didn’t really care about the conjecture people had about the group. “For me, creating this group wasn’t about what people thought," Opare-Saforo tells OkayAfrica. "OK, if you thought women weren’t supposed to ride. That was your headache, not mine.”

How it all began

motorcycle

Most bikes are manufactured with men’s physique in mind. Women might find it difficult to find the right fit for them.

Photo Courtesy of Biker Girls Gh

Biker Girls Gh was created after Opare-Saforo's mother passed away in February 2018. Losing someone she was extremely close to devastated her and she found solace on the wheels of a motorcycle.

“I lost my mother and I figured, you know, I had this passion that I wanted to pursue for the longest time. And I felt you only live once. Why don't you just embark on something that you have always wanted to do?," Opare-Saforo said. "Because time is not given. And, tomorrow's not guaranteed.”

She reached out to Rosina Kwawukume Ashirifie, one of the very few women actively biking at the time. Ashirifie's husband offered biking lessons and Opare-Saforo learned from there. Over time, Opare-Saforo found that being on bike helped alleviate her pain.

“On the motorcycle, you cannot multitask," she said. “So whenever I was on a motorcycle, I didn’t think about her and the pain too much. That helped me cope better. You just learn to live with the pain and hope they are in a better place.”

Biker Girls Gh riding in streets

“Before you officially join the group, we take you out on a fun ride to assess how you ride and also gel with the girls," Opare-Saforo said. "This is done like three times."

Photo Courtesy of Biker Girls Gh

She decided then to form a community of women who simply loved riding like herself. Interestingly, she didn’t have to convince women to join. Representation really does matter. Women got the nudge they needed when they saw her — unapologetically being herself — on the motorcycle.

“You would see people on television or maybe on the internet who would ride and you'd think, 'Oh, that's such an interesting sport or an interesting hobby to have.' But you would think it was out of reach," Opare-Saforo said. "'Till you realize your next-door neighbor is a female rider and then you‘re like, 'Oh, wait, it's not so far out of reach.' And then you say to yourself, 'OK, this is something I can do, too.’”

Most bikes are manufactured with men’s physique in mind. Women might find it difficult to find the right fit for them. (Even though Opare-Saforo suggests the Kawasaki as ideal for women between 5’5 to 5’8.) And motorcycling is a relatively high-risk hobby; safety is non-negotiable. Biker Girls Gh is stern on safety precautions, which sounds intimidating to the average rider or new rider. But it is a policy they are unwilling to compromise on. Should a member ride without their full gear on three times in a row, the group exercises measures like suspension.

The group doesn’t offer bike lessons and new members must have their own motorcycles as a prerequisite. They must also be experienced riders or ideally be above beginner level. A motorcycling license is also a prerequisite.

“Before you officially join the group, we take you out on a fun ride to assess how you ride and also gel with the girls," Opare-Saforo said. "This is done like three times."

Charitable Ladies on the Bike

A group of women in bike group

Biker Girls Gh features bankers, content creators, electrical engineers, managing directors, and CEOs.

Photo Courtesy of Biker Girls Gh

A noticeable feature of the group is how most of the women come from different professional backgrounds. There are bankers, content creators, electrical engineers, managing directors, and CEOs. Targeting this peculiar bevy of ladies was deliberate for Opare-Saforo. She didn’t want to be like other groups, so standing out was imperative to the group.

“Being able to pull women from various spheres of life helps us and gives us the necessary leverage we need to move further,” she said.

The core objective of the group has always been about riding. But they have also embraced philanthropy. In 2019, they rode all the way from Accra to Prampram where they donated immensely to the Kinder Paradise Orphanage. In 2021, they paid the medical bills of women stuck in the hospital for owing medical fees and donated to prison inmates at Akuse who couldn’t afford healthy meals. They also collaborated with the “Kenkey for the Needy” project in 2022 to provide food for street kids in Accra.

Inspirational sisters spurring each other up

black women with mask

The core objective of Biker Girls Gh has always been about riding. But they have also embraced philanthropy.

Photo Courtesy of Biker Girls Gh

The camaraderie and sisterhood in the group is profound, which encapsulate a solid support system that inspire members to be the best versions of themselves.

“Ninety-five percent of the group are in leadership or mid-level roles in their respective careers,” Opare-Saforo said. “We have a WhatsApp group where we discuss socio-economic issues, sometimes issues concerning women just to stimulate the sisterhood. Once a month, we meet to have breakfast or lunch to catch up. We do acknowledge that times are hard in Ghana and everyone is struggling. Sometimes you don’t just want to text anything in a WhatsApp group but if you meet your sister you can tell her about it.”

Beyond that, personal friendships are also forming within the group which just firmly grounds the group the more. Biker Girls Gh are currently 17 women and Opare-Saforo iterates the fact that she doesn’t care about the number necessarily — all she strives for is quality in the group.

Photo by: Yuri Kriventsoff

Moroccan Government Issues First Permits For Legal Cannabis Production

This marks the first time the Arab country is issuing these permits.

The Moroccan government recently gave 10 farmers permission to grow cannabis legally. This marks the first time the country will issue permits following the legalization of cannabis production last year.

According to the Institute of Security Studies, Morocco is part of a growing group of African countries who would like to position itself as a booming international legal market for cannabis. This new legal development will allow farmers in the northern mountain regions of Taounat, Al Houceima, and Chefchaouen to grow cannabis that will meet the legal market's demand. Before now, cannabis had been widely cultivated in Morocco illegally; however, the law passed by the Moroccan parliament last year does not permit the use of cannabis for recreation. The national agency, which regulates cannabis activity in Morocco, issued the permits and said that farmers would be encouraged to increase legal cannabis production to meet the demands of the market.

According to the Morocco World News, the Moroccan government is optimistic that this new development will help to improve the lifestyles of farmers, and increase their livelihoods amid a growing legal global market for the element. The global cannabis demand is growing and is projected to reach over US$ 100 billion in the next five years. If more African countries legalize legal cannabis, the industry could be worth more than $7 billion by 2023.

Because of Morocco's close proximity to Europe, it could potentially become a leading legitimate cannabis exporter. In 2020, Moroccan farmers collectively experienced a drastic income dip that fell from approximately $497 million a year in the early 2000s to less than $321 million dollars in 2020, according to an interior ministry study last year.

Before the legalization was implemented, Moroccan farmers indicated that they wanted the implementation to be sped up. In an earlier statement, Mohamed Abbout, head of the Rif Mountains Association said that the legalization would be a step in the right direction for the country

"Farmers are desperate when it comes to the drug trade,’ said Abbout. ‘That's why they're waiting for the legalization, so we can create a medicinal market."

Arts + Culture
Photo: Anh Trần

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