Equal Education is a Right, not a Privilege

I don’t know where you are as you are reading this.

I want you to think about your workplace, wherever that may be. At an office, a school, university, college, at home. You strive to do your best every day, you work hard, you try to have good grades/performance/stats/work ethic. You go to work (or school, university etc) every day.

Now I want you to imagine having to work under the following circumstances and really think whether you would be able to give a successful performance every day. Would you be able to reach your full potential under any, or all, of these scenarios?

  1. You have no access to electricity
  2. You have no toilets, you have to go in the field/parking lot/wherever you can
  3. You have toilets, but they are pit toilets
  4. You have no access to water

Would you be able to give your best under these circumstances? Do any of these four points make you a bit uncomfortable, or maybe even disgusted? Can you imagine having to work under these circumstances? Many people (including myself) are privileged enough not to have to worry these issues in our workplaces.

Now imagine your children having to go to school under these circumstances. Would you accept it? Would you complain? Would you want to change things?

According to Equal Education, of the 5000 schools in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, 245 have no electricity. 53 schools have no toilets at all, 2127 have pit toilets only, and 197 have no access to water. Read those numbers again.

In South Africa, we are quick to insult the percentage of ‘failed learners’ in poorer communities. But how can we expect young people to work at their best if their basic needs are not being fulfilled? I, for one, would not be able to do my best under any of those circumstances.

We are quick to judge. We are less quick to question how we can help or raise awareness. Again, I include myself.

For those of us who are privileged enough to be unable to even imagine these four scenarios being applicable to our own education, we are too comfortable. We live in accidental, and sometimes intentional, oblivion. We turn a blind eye to things when they don’t affect us.

It’s time we start opening our eyes, South Africa. It’s time we see that what affects one South African affects all of us. There are significant inequalities in our education system.

Many of us cannot afford to help financially – I realise that. But we can all speak up and bring the inequalities in our schools to the attention of those who CAN help financially. We can all make a difference – you can start by sharing the campaigns and publications of movements such as Equal Education.

Let’s start standing up for those who are not seen. Let’s start using our platforms, however small, to bring those who need a platform up there with us. Let us make space for them to speak up, let us help them to be noticed.

Let us no longer be silent on issues that don’t necessarily touch us directly.

Let us use our voices and really live out the Ubuntu philosophy – ‘I am because you are’. We need each other, every South African of every race, culture, religion, gender and beliefs.

If we speak up, I believe we will see change.

We are quick to say that things are unacceptable, that things need to change. Let’s be just as quick to help where we can, to build others up, so we can stand together.

South Africa, together we can make sure that education is equal. 

My Menstruation is not a Sin!

Throughout the world, menstruation shares a common universal feature; women have historically been shamed because of it.

Although female sexual and reproductive health has started to become more important as a topic of study and discussion in the last few decades, many women to this day experience an overwhelming level of stigma around menstruation.

In many low-middle income countries, access to sanitary products such as pads and tampons is extremely restricted, forcing young girls and women to use inappropriate products, such as a piece of old cloth or banana leaves. A dire consequence of using unsanitary products is the development of genital and urinary tract infections that can, if unimpeded, cause severe complications.

While this is a truly worrying situation, it is not highlighted enough as a public health issue – primarily due to the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation.

The lack of proper sanitary products and/or facilities often forces girls and young women to miss school. This in turn affects women’s long-term economic development. This is not only seen in low-middle income countries; in the UK for example, girls and women often cannot afford the sanitary products they need – a problem known as ‘period poverty’.

In many countries across the globe, menstruation is considered dirty and repulsive. In some cultures, it’s even seen as a sign of ‘loss of virginity’ – insinuating moral and ethical depravity. In many countries, women and girls are ordered to leave their homes for the duration of their menses to prevent ‘desecration’ of their homes. In all these scenarios, girls and women find themselves ostracized, humiliated and expected to accept this without question or debate.

Even in parts of the world where the situation may not be so extreme, some degree of stigma remains around menstruation – large enough to prevent girls and women from seeking medical care because they feel too ’embarrassed’. Within the bounds of such societies, menstruators may not seek medical help and may not be able to recognize important health-related problems should they arise.

In the UK, almost 80% of adolescent girls have experienced a distressing symptom relating to their menstrual cycle but have not approached a medical professional for advice.

A large contributor to these misbeliefs is the lack of education and awareness on menstruation. This leads to an inundation of false conceptions and misrepresentations. Due to the restrictive social norms in many parts of the world, it is a topic rarely discussed within the family structure.

Not only does this mean an uneducated society when it comes to female sexual and reproductive health, but it also means that many young girls have no or very limited knowledge on what to expect and how to react when their menses start. Instead, they become more confused, isolated and unable to manage their menstruation in a safe, clean and dignified manner.

Many countries have addressed several of these demanding issues. In Kenya for example, free sanitary products are available and in neighbouring Ethiopia, menstrual hygiene clubs have been established in many schools.

How we are trying to help

The Swedish Organization for Global Health (SOGH) – in association with Uganda Development and Health Associates (UDHA) – has launched a project titled Ekibadha: Our Periods Matter, in recognition of this extremely important matter.

The UDHA Dignity Project

The project aims to understand and highlight the difficulties women and girls in rural Uganda are facing regarding their cycles. The project is in its first stages, but our goal is to develop a community-based initiative that involves the entire community which will be sustainable – economically and environmentally.

“Men should be more involved” said one of the women we interviewed last summer in one of the rural villages in Muyage District. We agree! Men need to be part of the conversation, this is not just a ‘women’s issue’.

To learn more about the project, please visit www.sogh.se/ekibadha-our-periods-matter/

How you can help

You can help us take this project forward. We are currently raising funds to support preliminary data collection, which is fundamental to shaping and guiding the project. Data will also give us the basics to apply for institutional funds. Click here and help us out, every penny is worth it! https://www.gofundme.com/MHproject-Uganda

Interview with a woman in Muyage District about menstrual health by SOGH and UDHA.

For any further information or to get personally involved please email us at MHproject@sogh.se. You can also help by spreading the word, sharing this article on social media.

#OurPeriodsMatter #BloodyIssues

Turning the Tide in the Caribbean to Educate Adolescent Mothers

The Caribbean, known for its white sandy beaches, clear waters and vibrant culture is also home to the second highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the world – second to Sub-Saharan Africa. The highest rates of adolescent pregnancy within the Caribbean are found in the Dominican Republic and Guyana.

When a girl becomes pregnant she faces many challenges, such as being kicked out of school, ostracism from family and friends, lack of support from the father of the child(ren), and lack of access to continuing her education. 

These challenges lead to a cycle of intergenerational poverty, unemployment and gender based violence.

Despite a societal culture that does not encourage adolescent mothers returning to school, strides have been made to ensure that they have the opportunity to continue and complete their education. Specifically, in Jamaica, multi-sectoral approaches have led to the establishment and implementation of the Policy for the Reintegration of School Aged Mothers into the Formal School System, which mandates that adolescent mothers be allowed to return to school after having their child.

To date, approximately 2,850 adolescent mothers have been reintegrated into the formal school system. Jamaica is the first Caribbean island to have such a policy, while the implementation of Guyana’s reintegration policy is currently underway.

There have also been advances in supporting adolescent mothers through programming. Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Kitts and Nevis are a few of the Caribbean countries that have programs or organizations dedicated to advancing the health and rights of adolescent mothers.

In Jamaica, the Women’s Centre Jamaica Foundation is promoting a new approach to problems associated with teenage pregnancy, especially in the area of interrupted education. Women Across Differences in Guyana implements the Empowerment Programme to provide a safe and friendly learning environment for mothers to acquire sexual & reproductive health information and services , as well as life skills to create a better life for themselves and their children.

The Adolescent Mothers Programme (Trinidad and Tobago) and Project Viola (St. Kitts and Nevis) are programs established through collaborative efforts of ministries and community-based organizations. Both provide a wide range of support such as counseling, career development, parenting courses and skills training.

As a native of Jamaica and the founder of Pearls of Potential – an organization providing support and services to adolescent mothers in the developing world – I am proud of the work that has been done in the Caribbean in supporting adolescent mothers.

Caribbean leaders must understand the importance of educating adolescent mothers. They must also establish and strengthen resources and policies that will support the completion of their education.

It is important for governing bodies such as the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to create agendas that include goals in support of adolescent mothers and ensure that these goals align with the Sustainable Development Goals. The continued tangible support of international non-governmental organizations such as UNFPA, UNICEF and UNESCO is also paramount to the sustainability of current programs.

On this International Day of Girl, with the theme With Her: A Skilled GirlForce, we must make a commitment to ensure that adolescent mothers have the opportunity to continue and complete their education, which will give them a chance to gain skills for employment, provide for their child(ren) and contribute to a growing society.

We must remember that when we invest in our girls, we invest in our future.

An Interview with Neema Namadamu: a Warrior of Peace

Today, 20 February, is World Day of Social Justice. To celebrate, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with women’s rights advocate and social justice champion, Neema Namadamu.

Neema is a remarkable woman with the resilience and fortitude of a warrior and the natural beauty of a wild flower. When I sat with her, I noticed the self confidence that flowed through every word that she spoke. She is truly a force of feminine strength, grit and influence.

She shared her views on the various obstacles that women and girls face in remote areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well explaining several interventions that her organization has in place to ameliorate these challenges. As Founder and Executive Director of Hero Women Rising, Neema works to empower children and women through access to quality education, especially women with disabilities. It is a hub for technological exploration and cultural exchange for many women. In addition, Neema and the amazing staff members of Hero Women Rising strive to encourage leadership through the Girl Ambassador for Peace program.

Here are some of her thoughts on social justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  1. If you could describe yourself in two words, what would they be?

Powerful Woman

  1. How would you describe yourself as a component of your family, school and larger community?

I’ve become an integral part of my community, my family, and my school. I’m unforgettable now, I am a rock, I am a lioness. I am known, and I have become a model for other women and for fathers to envision the possibilities for their daughters.

  1. Thinking back on your childhood and your progression to adulthood, who were some of the most significant people in your life?

My mom. She loved me, she supported me, and she never gave up on me. She appreciated me for who I was, she gave me dignity and education. Also my friends – the ones who included me and didn’t exclude me because of my disability.

Sometimes even strangers! Strangers who would show me kindness even though they didn’t know me, and then we would become friends.

  1. What are your goals for the DRC and the organizations you lead?

I want peace. I want to see people living in peace, having the employment and the resources that they need, and working together. I want women to have a voice and a significant role in the peace process; this is one of the ultimate goals of my organization. I think that if women are included in a serious way, we can achieve peace.

  1. Can you think of any occasion in your personal or professional life in which you felt a push or pull toward a certain line of work. Can you explain that feeling and what led up to it?

I have often felt pulled to work in the realm of gender and women’s empowerment. I noticed throughout my career that I began to feel more and more vulnerable, both myself and my work. As a woman, I was not treated as an equal and valued. I often didn’t have access to opportunities.

Similarly, because I had a disability, it would take me longer to do many things, and this made me feel frustrated. This made people have a particular opinion about me or my work, which was often not true. For example, when I tried to meet with certain officials, they all thought I would be begging for something, and they didn’t want to meet me. It wasn’t until much later, when I had become quite successful, that these same officials came back and asked ME for meetings. So I told them I was too busy to come to their office, but if they wanted to meet, they could come see me at my office.

Both of these experiences made me really want to contribute to rights and opportunities for women, and especially for women with disabilities.

  1. Do you feel that you have accomplished all of your goals for your organization?

I’m just beginning!

Photo credit: Neema Namadamu

On this World Social Justice Day and everyday, channel your inner lioness and be a warrior for peace like Neema! 


#NoChildAlone: Investing in Care for Children

Today is Universal Children’s Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stresses that all children must be protected, all children have a right to all they need to grow and develop, and all children have a right to be cared for.

To commemorate the day, SOS Children’s Villages asked children all over the world to show us how their mom or dad care for them.

It was heartwarming to receive more than 400 video clips from children in different countries who captured these touching moments with their parents.

But the sad reality is that 1 in 10 children – 220 million children worldwide – can’t share any of these moments because they’re growing up alone – without a loving family to care for them.

According to ‘The Care Effect‘, a report released by SOS Children’s Villages, children who grow up without adequate parental care are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of human rights violations such as child labor, exclusion, violence, and sex trafficking. They have a limited or no access to education and medical services simply because there is no one to take them to school or a health center.

There is also a scientifically proven connection between the amount of love and care children receive and their mental health and ability to learn, which ultimately affect children’s success in life.

Care for children is one of the best investments in the future the global community can make now.

Expert insight summarized in ‘The Care Effect‘ report shows that children who grow up in a caring environment are more likely to develop social skills and resilience to cope with life’s adversity and reach their full potential. This has a positive effect on their community as a whole. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University estimated that every dollar invested in early childhood development returns $4 to $9 to society.

A strong foundation for children’s future starts in a caring family.  

For orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children, SOS Children’s Villages builds loving, stable families across 135 countries. Through the #NoChildAlone campaign that is kicking off today SOS Children’s Villages is connecting global voices in support of the care every child needs to grow, thrive, and lead a fulfilling life.

Join SOS Children’s Villages in honoring Universal Children’s Day by watching and sharing this video.

Learn more about how you can help make sure no child grows up alone.

Lessons from the UK’s First Period Conference

Last week, Justine Greening MP, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, stated that period poverty was the responsibility of schools and parents. As a period poverty activist I was infuriated by this statement and the lack of knowledge which underpinned it.

So, when I attended the UK’s first period conference two days later, I thought it would be a great idea to share my learning with Justine Greening. Below are a list of the key takeaways from the conference so everyone, including the UK Minister for Women and Equalities, can understand how we can improve the lives of those who menstruate:

1. Period poverty is a reality

The conference brought together organisations from all over the UK to share their experiences of period poverty and period taboos, and to develop a manifesto to tackle these issues.

I met with organisations from a number of sectors, and almost every part of the UK. Their experiences of working to alleviate period poverty are enough evidence that it exists.

During the conference, Hannah from Period Potential shared her experience of period poverty. She told her heartbreaking story of growing up without lack of access to products. She said that sometimes she “would save money for sanitary products instead of eating”.

Hannah’s story is not unique. According to Precious Stars 57% of people have used toilet roll or something else to absorb their blood whilst on their period. And, Plan UK’s research showed that 16% of girls’ families in their survey struggled to afford sanitary items.

2. Period poverty is about more than unaffordable products

If we are going to tackle period poverty we need to tackle the bigger picture. Period poverty isn’t just about being unable to afford products, it’s also a deep rooted societal issue. It’s the ingrained taboos and stigma which stop people from asking for help.

We need to create an honest and open culture around menstruation, so that people feel comfortable to speak out about their experiences. In doing so we need to be explicit in our conversations about periods and not be ashamed by our natural bodily process.

Photo by Terri Harris

3. We need to reform the UK education system

We need to completely reform the way we teach sexual education in UK schools because the current curriculum reinforces menstrual taboos and stigma.

Boys and girls are separated from the moment they begin sex education. This needs to change. Menstruation is a bodily process that both sexes need to understand in order to eradicate the idea that periods are unclean.

Period product brands play too large a role in the education system. Pupils are being advertised to rather than educated. These are the brands that made us believe periods are blue, and that we’re unclean during menstruation. We need an open dialogue which includes reusable products, and doesn’t exclude pupils by focusing on expensive name-brand products.

4. We need to understand menstruation better

Sally King, from Menstrual Matters, shared her experience in which her PMS vomiting was misdiagnosed as anxiety because there wasn’t enough research on how menstruation affects the body. 

There’s a huge data gap. Due to many social, economic and political factors there is an inadequate diagnosis process to differentiate between health issues and those heightened or, caused by the menstrual cycle. There needs to be more medical and scientific research into how menstruation affects our bodies.

There has also been no national or regional survey about period poverty. And, that means we have no idea what the extent of the issue is, or who is tackling it. We need to work together to commission research, so we have hard evidence to lobby the government with.

5. We need to be more inclusive

There is a need to understand menstruation beyond the lens of a white, able-bodied cis-female. Menstruation intersects culture, sexuality, disabilities and religion. Therefore we must work to acknowledge the differences in people’s experiences of menstruation.

As, Mandu Reid from the Cup Effect noted, “making assumptions is one of the most dangerous things we can do”. It is important that we ask individuals how they need to be supported, and work with them to change the lives of their communities.

Saturday’s event focused on breaking the barriers of menstruation, and it did just that. Whilst Justine Greening may be able to overlook the issues of period poverty and period education, the menstrual queens I met at the conference will not. This marks the beginning of a national effort to change the way we view periods, reduce shame and tackle period poverty once and for all.