Candice Chirwa, an activist who has been dubbed the “minister of menstruation”, has made it her life’s work to help end period poverty (when those on low incomes can't afford or access suitable period products) and help remove the societal stigmas that surround menstruation.
Chirwa, who has a Master of arts degree, began this unique journey with research for the United Nations in 2017 when she was just 21 years old.
The first-generation South African-Malawian was tasked with finding research on different countries' policies regarding menstrual health.
“Through these workshops, a friend of mine then gave me the term ‘minister of menstruation’, and since then, I have used my social media accounts to drive period positivity and education for people,” says Chirwa.
In August 2022, Scotland made history as the first nation to provide period products, including tampons and sanitary pads, to anyone who needs them.
The co-author of ‘Flow: A Book about Menstruation’ says period products could equate to a cost of more than R75 000 in one’s lifetime.
“There are so many menstruators that will resort to using unhygienic materials to go about their day-to-day activities, and this should not be the case.”
Additionally, she would like to see paid period leave in South Africa, citing Japan, which introduced the policy over a century ago in 1920.
“A period-leave policy would de-stigmatise menstruation in the workplace and create a safe environment for those with period-related illnesses such as endometriosis (a condition resulting from the appearance of endometrial tissue outside the uterus and causing pelvic pain) and dysmenorrhea (severe and frequent menstrual cramps),” she advises.
However, menstruators may face discrimination and sexism if period leave is implemented in workplaces, according to Chirwa.
It may exacerbate the stereotypes that women face in the workplace, such as being too emotional, unreliable, and expensive for employers.
Maia Schwartz famously said: “Menstruation is the only blood that is not born from violence, yet it's the one that disgusts you the most.”
Chirwa’s own period, which she says started at the tender age of 10, planted the seeds for her activism.
“I felt terrified and scared, and the lack of conversations I had then furthered the stigma and guilt I carried. When I turned 21 and came across the research regarding period stigma, I felt the need to change the dis-empowering narrative.”
Her focus is now on providing menstrual education to young people and sharing awareness about different period products. There remains misinformation surrounding the process, Chirwa says.
The dynamic woman also founded Qrate, a non-profit company focused on enhancing the critical thinking skills essential for young people.
“Young girls feel as if they’re going to die or have a disease. Their parents or guardians will ridicule them for staining their clothes or being on their period. And this just shows how much more work is needed in educating parents to understand that periods are a natural and biological function.”
The stigmatisation of menstruation often begins in childhood, where menstruation is seen as a taboo topic, and classes are separated by gender when they learn about it, or parents take children aside, according to Chirwa.
“Many men are uncomfortable with discussion of periods, even in homes and within relationships. But here is the reality: most people with a uterus that you know will spend about 40 years menstruating.
“We can eliminate period poverty in our world by asking ourselves about the power we have in shaping our communities. It’s the little things like buying an extra period product and donating it to charities or sharing articles that showcase the realities of period poverty.”