Breaking the taboo around female health issues in Afghanistan

Afghan activist Hoda Khamosh, who has launched several awareness campaigns around female health. (Credit: Hoda Kamosh)

Hoda Khamosh is a well-known women’s rights activist, journalist, and campaigner who has launched several public programmes to raise awareness of female health-related issues.

Among these, “Menstruation is not a taboo” was a significant campaign that led Khamosh to find a place in the list of BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women, released last week.

“As a civil activists group, we have been always brainstorming to find new ideas for our seminars and awareness programmes. For 2021, we decided to launch a campaign on menstruation because it is an important issue, while in our society it is considered as a personal secret,” Khamosh said.

Khamosh was born in 1996 in Iran. She was a child when her family moved back to Afghanistan and their home province of Pawan in the north of Kabul.  She trained as a journalist and worked for several local radio channels as a presenter and with Mandegar daily newspaper as a writer and journalist in Kabul.

In 2021, she and her friends launched an awareness campaign in Afghan schools, just a few months before the Taliban took over, to help tackle the stigma around menstruation.

“The aim of the programme, ‘Menstruation is not a taboo’, was to promote open conversations about periods. We targeted 25 girls’ and boys’ schools, where we discussed menstruation with the students and provided them with the necessary information and knowledge about the subject,” Khamosh told Geneva Solutions.

Menstruation is not only an important medical issue, it is also a sensitive social issue in Afghan society. Negative taboos around periods can have deep historical roots and can lead to significant challenges.

Because it’s seen as something shameful, girls are often taught they have to hide it or manage it privately. These stigmas can prevent girls from getting access to information about menstruation and lead to serious health issues.

“In our weekly sessions in the schools, we had asked students to pay attention to cleanliness and the use of sanitary pads. If they feel pain during menstruation, they should consult their mother or older sister. Girls who are just menstruating should not feel afraid and be mentally prepared.”

In the past few months, Afghan women have not had full access to health care and other basic necessities of life due to poverty and deprivation. Women's ability to access period supplies has also been limited.

Khamosh has participated in numerous marches and demonstrations organised to defend women's rights, including the women's demonstrations after the Taliban took over. In these demonstrations, women raised their voices in defence of the right to work, education and active participation in politics and the top management of the country.

“I took an active part in all the recent demonstrations. My friends and I staged several demonstrations, but during the last demonstration we found out that the Taliban were identifying the participants and listing their names,” Khamosh said.

“Later, some of us were persecuted. I went to my village out of fear. When I returned, my house was in a state of disarray. After that, we did not appear on the streets and adopted another method of protest.”

Nowadays, Khamosh has been leading a group of 250 women. They have protested in front of the media and published their pictures on social media. In this way, Khamosh hopes it will prevent a confrontation with the Taliban.