Chioma Nwigwe: ‘No one should ever have to experience the indignity of period poverty and no girl should ever have to miss out on an education as a result.’

Chioma Nwigwe is a lawyer, brand strategist, senior project manager, and period health advocate with a Master of Laws in International Development from the University of Nottingham, UK. Her interest in period health was born out of personal experiences and a plastic intolerance that made disposable pads and periods a traumatic experience for 13 years. Determined to find alternative solutions to disposable pads, she went into research and uncovered a far more profound challenge experienced by millions of girls in Nigeria and Africa at large – period poverty.

After 3+ years of research and visiting several slum communities in Nigeria, she founded Safety for Every Girl (SFEG) to ensure a world where every girl has access to sustainable, safe, and hygienic period products. In January 2023, she partnered with MTN to launch the first annual Safety For Every Girl National Essay, inviting teenage girls and young Nigerian women to submit essays on the topic, “Innovative Solutions to Combat Period Poverty,with N2.5 Million of cash prizes to be won.

Chioma will lead SFEG to host the world’s first Period Summit in Lagos, Nigeria, in March, and this month, we have the opportunity to speak with the remarkable Chioma, who has dedicated their time and efforts to addressing an often-overlooked issue affecting women all over the world: period poverty. Read, and be inspired.

Chioma, your journey from a lawyer and brand strategist to the founder of the Safety For Every Girl Foundation is inspiring. Could you share the pivotal moment that led you to delve into period health advocacy and ultimately establish SFEG? In 2017, during a checkup with the gynecologist, I found out I was allergic to latex. For 13 years, I had endured terrible hives and itching every month and didn’t realize it was my body reacting to the plastic in disposable menstrual hygiene products. I sought to find plastic-free alternatives and while researching online, I came across a United Nations article discussing period poverty as a public health crisis. It was the first time I had ever heard about it and I had so many questions! How could such a pervasive issue go unnoticed? Why had I never come across this before, and were others aware of it? What efforts were being made to address this issue, and why hadn’t more action been taken? I still have the same questions today.

You spent more than three years researching and visiting slum areas in Nigeria. Can you elaborate on the difficulties you encountered during this process and how they spurred your determination to combat period poverty? The online articles were alarming, but I felt compelled to speak to the potential beneficiaries myself and understand the challenge. To date, the conversations I’ve had with students and teachers about period poverty remain the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life. The first teacher I spoke with recounted her past as a young girl who was forced to leave school because she couldn’t afford menstrual products and couldn’t bear the shame and mockery associated with getting stained in school. Even as a teacher today, she struggles to afford menstrual hygiene products, as her monthly salary of N35,000 makes spending N500–N1,000 on these products monthly simply unsustainable. The students shared the harsh realities of using tissue, rags, and leaves to manage their monthly flow, often resorting to wearing denim shorts to cope with the bleeding. The shame, the discomfort, the physical and emotional trauma… In that moment, I knew I would dedicate my life and resources to addressing and eliminating this challenge.

This January, you launched a partnership with MTN for the annual Safety for Every Girl National Essay. Tell us how this remarkable collaboration happened and how you believe the essay competition may influence the current discourse around period poverty.  The competition is designed to spark conversation and innovative thinking from young people, encouraging them to share their experiences, insights, and solutions related to period poverty. Our hope is that this competition emphasizes the importance of education, access to menstrual products, sanitation facilities, and abolishing cultural stigmas surrounding periods. By highlighting the challenges and solutions related to period poverty, the essays would contribute to the development of best practices, policies, and programs that can improve the lives of girls and women. Given its global presence and commitment to making positive change, promoting social awareness, and inspiring change through technology, MTN was the perfect partner, and when the opportunity presented itself, we grabbed it.

The essay competition’s theme, “Innovative Solutions to Combat Period Poverty,” is compelling. How can our readers or their families participate? It’s very easy! Simply visit www.safetyforeverygirl.com and follow the instructions.

You’re gearing up to host the world’s first Period Summit! This is a significant milestone. What motivated you to take this step, and what can attendees expect from this groundbreaking event? Menstruation is a natural and regular occurrence affecting over half of the world’s population, and it shouldn’t be concealed in secrecy. The Period Summit signifies a crucial step in dispelling harmful stereotypes associated with periods. The summit will feature engaging panel sessions led by inspiring female leaders from diverse sectors, providing a platform for young individuals to share their experiences and perspectives on menstruation. Inclusive discussions and entertaining elements can also be expected, ensuring participants walk away feeling both empowered and informed. Our aim is to redefine perceptions and make periods a topic that is not only openly discussed but celebrated!

During your Master of Laws in International Development Studies, did you encounter any worldwide efforts or models that inspired your approach to addressing period poverty with a focus on sustainability and hygiene? Certainly. Our approach is definitely inspired by international organizations such as UNICEF and WHO. The selection of reusable products is in alignment with global sustainability initiatives, emphasizing the reduction of waste and single-use plastics. Our decision to prioritize education and awareness, alongside product distribution, is drawn from international best practices that emphasize addressing the root causes of challenges, not just the visible symptoms. In this context, our focus is on challenging harmful stereotypes and cultural perceptions surrounding menstruation.

The SFEG National Essay offers substantial cash prizes. How do you believe this recognition and financial support can empower and inspire young girls and women to actively engage in combating period poverty? A lot of hard work goes into crafting a good essay including rigorous research and significant time commitment. I believe that, as a society, we often overlook the celebration of meaningful initiatives, especially within the realm of academic pursuits. In designing the essay competition, we were determined to ensure that the prizes serve as compelling incentives for participants, acknowledging the substantial investment of their time and resources in crafting these essays. Our goal is to ensure that the winners feel genuinely celebrated and serve as an inspiration to other young women and girls.

What are your aspirations for the future of today’s young African girls and women? I aspire for a future where Nigeria’s young girls and women experience true gender equality, have equal opportunities, and benefit from menstrual equity. No one should ever have to experience the indignity of period poverty and no girl should ever have to miss out on an education as a result. Together we can build this future.

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