When Getting Your Period Means Missing More than Gym Class
“Today’s young girls will teach the next generation about puberty, sexuality, and reproductive health. The conspiracy of silence will have been broken.”
When my friend’s daughter got her first period last week, her mother bought her a bouquet of flowers. This isn’t what my mother would have done - we acknowledged such biological rites of passage in far more understated ways – but it was an apt and affirming tribute to what is – and should be – an auspicious landmark on the road to womanhood. My friend’s daughter was delighted. She understands that the start of her menses will inevitably bring new inconveniences, but she also understands – as do most American girls – that these inconveniences won’t define her future.
Contrast this with the experience of girls in rural Africa. Here, the start of a girl’s period is more likely to be accompanied by the sound of doors closing than florists’ papers crackling. The doors aren’t just literal – though menstruating girls are often confined to the home or to designated areas – the so-called “red tents.” They’re metaphorical too. Considered too impure to participate in home and community activities, many girls simply disappear for a week or so every month. Estimates suggest that girls typically miss more than two weeks of school per term after getting their period. When you’re already fighting for basic schooling – girls are typically expected to stay home or marry young in rural African communities – this can have a devastating impact on a girl’s lifelong prospects.
It’s about Power as Well as Health.
The culture of disgrace and impurity that shrouds menstruation in poor African communities impacts girls’ health on multiple levels. Girls are taught not to talk openly about their bodies or ask questions about female health and development. “There’s a conspiracy of silence here that profoundly impact on girls’ sense of self-power,” explains Samuel Ndungo, Director of LUYODEFO, a nonprofit, non-government organization that provides support to marginalized communities across the Kasese district of western Uganda. “Many girls lack even the most basic information about puberty, menstruation, and reproductive health. Furthermore, what they do know is often inaccurate, putting them at high risk for early or unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases – outcomes that perversely reinforce the idea that femininity, announced by the arrival of menses, is a curse.”
It’s little wonder then that for girls in rural Africa, the start of menses isn’t something to celebrate. “Instead of embracing their strength as young women, girls in Uganda see menstruation as a stigma,” explains Ndungo. “That’s where we can help – by educating, advocating for, and empowering our girls.”
Central to Ndungo’s work is the Sanitary Ware Project, a program that aims to equip girls in rural primary schools with special reusable sanitary pads. “Girls in Kasese don’t have many options for managing their menses,” Ndungo explains. “Disposable pads are prohibitively expensive and reusable pads are in very short supply. As a result, most girls use old rags as sanitary napkins.” Pressured to keep their sanitary supplies out of sight, many girls store, wash and dry their pads in damp, insanitary places where they harbor bacteria. This predisposes girls to potentially devastating urinary and reproductive tract infections that at worst, permanently damage fertility and reproductive health. The lack of protection also increases the girls’ absenteeism from school due to fear and embarrassment of leaking and soiling.
The Sanitary Ware Project falls under the umbrella of a wider Sexuality and Health Education (SHE) project that educates girls about puberty, personal hygiene, sexuality, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV/AIDS. It’s just one arm of LUYODEFO’s work to empower girls – but it’s an important one that’s already opening doors for Kasese’s girls.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this project.
Educating girls is widely regarded as one of the best ways to improve the economy and health of developing countries (www.girleffect.org). Monthly absence from school means that girls typically attain lower overall literacy levels than boys, further amplifying the differential between levels of male versus female education and – consequentially – male versus female power, an inequality that shapes community and family structures throughout the developing world.
“This isn’t just about raising attendance though,” Ndungo is quick to point out. “It’s about raising the profile of girls at home, at school, and in the community. It’s about teaching them to advocate for themselves. It’s about telling them to be proud. It’s about telling them they have the right to be healthy and educated.”
The implications of this are significant. Today’s young girls will teach the next generation about puberty, sexuality, and reproductive health. The conspiracy of silence will have been broken. “By helping girls feel empowered we really can create social change,” insists Ndungo. “Girls who feel empowered are going to ask questions and push to get their questions answered. They’re going to understand what’s happening to their bodies, and be able to make informed decisions that keep them healthy and safe.”
For an ecologically sound product that carries a less-than-$4-a-year price tag, that’s a pretty impressive achievement.
People are coming out to help.
Many people are working had to accumulate materials and funds to support the project.
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