Summary: Candice Chirwa, an academic, author, and gender activist, confronts the destigmatisation of menstruation and calls for an end to “period poverty” in South Africa. In 2018, Chirwa formed Qrate, a nonprofit organisation promoting the dignity of women and girls by providing menstrual heath and sexual health education. She often faces resistance to her work from conservative elements within society, and she has sacrificed resources, time, and effort to ensure that her advocacy survives.
Profile: At the age of 10, South African Candice Chirwa experienced menstruation for the first time. Menstruation, of course, is a natural and healthy process for girls and women of reproductive age but Chirwa didn’t know that, and with no one to turn to, she feared for her life. After working up the courage to inform her mother, Chirwa was told to remain silent and not speak openly about her period. She felt ashamed.
About 15 years later, as an academic, Chirwa realised that the valuable knowledge on sexual health she shared with her colleagues was underutilized and not reaching people who would benefit from it; she was compelled to revisit the past. She thought of forming an initiative that would benefit the larger society.
“I just felt being in academic spaces is something I was often frustrated with,” she says. “The constant conversations that we had amongst other academics and the information was so important, yet inaccessible, especially for young people. I was like ‘I am going to create something’. I didn't know what it was going to look like. I knew there needed to be an organisation that can be a reliable source of information for young people to learn about something that happens to them. But we also need to be teaching this information in a very fun way, especially because sexual reproductive health talk is very, very structured.” Chirwa’s passion for human rights stems from a desire to challenge societal norms in a largely conservative and partriachal society: “I felt compelled to address menstrual education gaps, sparking my broader commitment to human rights.”
As a result, in 2018 Chirwa formed Qrate, a nonprofit organisation that promotes menstrual dignity, health, and education. Since its formation, Qrate has launched campaigns across South Africa through social media platforms and site visits.
In one of her campaigns called Period Positivity, Chirwa and her colleagues travel around South Africa encouraging girls to speak out in order to end “period stigma”.
In workshops attended by hundreds of participants across the country, Chirwa also encourages men and boys to join the fight against stigmatising a biological practice believed to be almost 40 million years old. In February 2023, during her #PeriodPositiveTour, Chirwa and her team travelled to the North West Province, where they donated menstrual products and raised awareness on menstrual health to young people in four schools.
“At Qrate, I've spearheaded impactful initiatives, focusing on menstrual education and challenging stereotypes,” she says. “My work integrates academic insights, advocacy, and entrepreneurship to drive positive change.”
Chirwa challenges policy makers and government officials to help in ending “period poverty”. Defined as a condition associated with lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, and water and sanitation infrastructure, period poverty is a global pandemic believed to have affected 400 million people worldwide.
Chirwa has held over 100 workshops and impacted over 6000 lives across South Africa. Popularly known as the Minister of Menstruation, Chirwa has received international recognition as well as awards and accolades for her work in menstrual education. “Yes,” she says, “my efforts in women's rights, particularly in menstrual education, have garnered recognition and awards. I've made a tangible impact by challenging taboos and fostering inclusivity.”
The world commemorates Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 each year, highlighting the importance of good menstrual hygiene, breaking the stigma around menstruation, and raising awareness on the challenges regarding access to menstrual products.
In one of her public conversations, Chirwa reasons that stigma around sexual, menstrual, and reproductive health contributes to harmful ideas and practices against women and girls. Period poverty directly impacts access to education and levels of poverty among women and girls. In South Africa, approximately seven million girls don’t have menstrual products while 30% of girls miss school due to period poverty. With about 1.8 billion people worldwide menstruating every month, Chirwa maintains that it is critical for governments to invest in promoting the dignity of menstruating people.
However, just like any other movement challenging patriachy, Chirwa noted, “Pursuing menstrual education faced resistance and societal taboos.” Overcoming this resistance requires “resilience and determination.”
Chirwa has made substantial sacrifices for her cause: “I've sacrificed personal comforts for my cause, dedicating time, energy, and resources to drive change. The pursuit of gender equality and human rights is a deeply ingrained commitment.”
Despite these challenges, surrendering is not an option to Candice Chirwa: “The burden and sacrifices incurred have only fueled my determination to press forward. As the ‘Minister of Menstruation’, I am committed to overcoming obstacles, challenging societal norms, and fostering inclusivity. The heavier the burden, the stronger my resolve to advance this crucial cause. I view challenges as opportunities for growth and positive change, and my dedication to moving this initiative forward remains unwavering.”