Ugochi Ohajuruka, a trained medical doctor from Nigeria, was doing research for her University of Liverpool Online Master’s in Public Health dissertation when she realized that Nigerian women and girls were experiencing a health crisis before her eyes. She describes a day at the health center where she was working when a teenage girl was rushed into the emergency room due to a serious pelvic infection caused by trying to manage menstruation with feathers and other unsafe materials.
“I saw a girl suffering due to a lack of knowledge about how to take care of her own body,” Ohajuruka said. “I realized that girls feel like half humans when they are on their periods. They lose their dignity.”
From this jarring realization, the Health Aid for All Initiative (HAFAI) was born. Ohajuruka describes it as a “holistic approach to health,” particularly for women and girls. The organization has a number of programs that aim to fill the knowledge gap that exists about many women’s issues, like menstrual and maternal health, breast and cervical cancer screening, advocacy on HIV/AIDS, as well as stressing the importance of immunizations and dispelling taboos that contribute to misinformation and fear among women about their own bodies.
In Nigeria and numerous other places in the world, many women are not adequately educated about the workings of their bodies while also being ostracized because of what is a natural and healthy process. Ohajuruka explains that in Nigeria, many women and girls are not allowed to socialize or even cook while on their periods. This culture of shame fosters more dangerous ignorance, with scores of women being subjected to female genital mutilation, while also not learning about safe birthing practices or the benefits of immunization for their children.
Another disturbing side effect of misinformation and shame about periods, besides the major health risk, is that many girls opt not to attend school while on their periods. In the course of her work, Ohajuruka did a study that revealed that a quarter of the girls in her area of Nigeria, called Abuja, stayed home while on their periods, missing valuable school days. The study also showed that 72 percent of girls had no accurate information about their period, with most believing it was an illness or curse.
This led Ohajuruka to create HAFAI’s first permanent programming, called the Red Diamond Project, which provides menstrual health instruction in schools to girls, while also distributing free, washable sanitary kits for managing their periods. The percentage of girls who missed school while on their periods fell from 23 percent to just eight percent after the program was implemented. It is now funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and works with over 4,000 girls in 20 schools in rural communities in Abuja. HAFAI has employed local women to manufacture the kits, working with over 100 women in 15 communities, giving them a steady source of income.
The challenges for Ohajuruka and HAFAI are many, as they work to dispel ingrained beliefs, often among people who don’t want the truth to spread. Ohajuruka is now being asked to expand countrywide, and the areas with some of the largest needs are those where the Boko Haram extremist group is a major threat. She has found many willing partners in her work, including the Nigerian Ministry of Health and UNICEF, but the ever-growing needs of women and girls are always at the front of her mind.
“It is difficult, but I am hopeful,” Ohajuruka says. “I am here to change things for girls and women in Africa. I am here to give them back their dignity and work for their equality.”