Why Menstrual Products Should be Free for All

I believe change is possible. I envision a world where those in remote rural areas, as well as other disadvantaged communities like mine, can have their periods with dignity.

In this world, young people would not have to miss out on classes because they have no proper menstrual products. For many young girls, menstruation is an addition to the long list of gender disparities they face every day of their lives. I find it almost unbelievable that having to go through a period without appropriate products can infringe on the most basic human rights of girls – including access to education.

In Zimbabwe, many girls in remote rural regions, and other disadvantaged areas such as farming communities, stay at home for the entire length of their periods.

This is primarily because of the fear and shame that exists around leaking in front of others. Sometimes girls use discarded cloth, but this does not offer sufficient protection on their long walks to school. It is these fears which prompt them to stay home and miss out their classes. If girls miss out on classes, they won’t be able to excel in their studies, which not only impacts negatively on the girl herself, but on her community as a whole.

The education of girls is undeniably one of the primary focus areas of development efforts, as female school achievement is believed to have long-lasting and far-reaching economic effects. Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030. To meet this aim, I believe that it’s imperative to provide free menstrual products for all.

The difficulty of using cloth while on your period is that you need to wash, dry and change the cloth. However, many schools don’t have facilities where girls can wash themselves and change their cloths, and there is nowhere to hang cloths to dry. This helps to explain why many stay home once a month, and demonstrates the importance of free provision of menstrual products to girls from disadvantaged communities in Zimbabwe and elsewhere around the world.

Stigma and gender disparities are still rife within many communities in Zimbabwe, and it should be noted that the subject of menstrual health remains a taboo. Parents don’t discuss it with their children, which leaves girls to suffer from pain and shame in silence.

In my community, there are many negative cultural attitudes associated with menstruation, including the idea that menstruating people are ‘contaminated’, ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’.

Stigma puts young girls in particular in an extremely difficult position – if they don’t have proper menstrual products, they leak. If they are seen with stained clothes, they risk being socially segregated.

I believe that one day, people from disadvantaged communities like mine will be free to experience their periods with dignity. Girls will be able to attend school, excel in their studies and, above all, stand and fight against stigma and discrimination. I believe that this begins with access to free menstrual products for all.

Lockdown in Uganda: Solutions in a Time of Crisis

On March 31st, the Ugandan government announced a nationwide lockdown and curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Clare Tusingwire, Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s Programme Director, has continued to support our communities during this difficult period.

Read our interview with Clare to learn about the impact of the lockdown on the lives of women and girls, and what Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) is doing to help.

1. What is daily life like in your community during the lockdown?

COVID-19 has made the lives of many living in Kampala extremely difficult, particularly in the deprived slum areas where GUIU works. While the government is distributing food to the most vulnerable families, not everyone is receiving the handouts.

Families are improvising every day because they do not have enough savings to sustain them. In the very poorest households, people are eating porridge made of cassava flour mixed with water and salt. For many, this is the cheapest starch available. 

2. Do you have any individual stories to share?

One story that particularly struck me was from a mother I counselled. She told me that she was feeling despondent because she used to be able to work to provide for her children. Now, she is struggling to provide a daily meal for them because her income stream has dried up. She told me that she lets her children rest and read their school books while she completes the heavy household chores. She hopes this will reduce the children’s hunger as they wait for their next meal. When she later received one of our relief packages, she was so excited.

3. What is the specific impact of COVID- 19 on girls and women in Uganda, particularly those living in urban slum communities?

Girls’ education has been significantly disrupted since the closure of schools. This is further exacerbated by increasing incidences of GBV as men are under more mental and economic stress.

As we know from other crises, girls and women are the most vulnerable.

As the incidence of GBV increases, there is a risk that some girls might never get the opportunity to return to school to complete their education. Parents usually save for fees over time, and there is likely to be a shortfall of money since livelihoods have been disrupted due to COVID-19.

4. Can you describe Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s response to COVID-19?

GUIU is reaching out to the girls and the families we support through our Survive & Thrive Fund. Two weeks ago, we started distribution of ‘family relief packages’ for the families of the at-risk girls we work with to enable them to survive. These packages contain food, soap, and sanitary pads to help families stay healthy and fed. We have already served 550 families, and aim to reach a total of 1,500 families.

Distributing the packages has also been critical as it give us the opportunity to check-in on and counsel the girls enrolled in our programmes in person. We are also sharing information about a 24/7 tollfree number (0800200600) where people can report cases of abuse or ask questions about COVID-19.

5. What do you think the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis will be on the rights of women and girls?

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, girls and women face the risk of backsliding and regression in terms of achieving gender equality and women’s rights.

The longer the lockdown continues, the more girls and women will lose their freedom to speak out. Girls will be unable to access safe spaces and programmes, such as our Adolescent Girls Programme.

More girls will be at risk of early pregnancy. They will also be more vulnerable to abuse from older men who offer to provide pads, food, and school fees in exchange for sex (‘sugar daddies’).

6. Do you have any advice for those who are currently experiencing lockdown?

We must tirelessly continue to raise awareness of COVID-19 by reminding our programme participants and our own communities to keep safe, keep healthy, and wash your hands.

As my team emphasised in our recent Ray of Hope podcast episode, we must balance our fears of COVID- 19 with positivity. Listening to the news can increase anxieties, so we need to be reminded that life will get better. There will be life after COVID-19.

You can find out more about Girl Up Initiative Uganda through our website and by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Igniting Girls’ Potential through Girl-Centred Design

Have you ever come across a community program, university course or advertisement and thought it could have used a bit more insight from the very people it aims to target?

I have, and that is why I have been admirer the work of GirlSPARKS for a while now. So you can imagine my excitement when I was recently asked to serve as a Goodwill Ambassador on their behalf! I already consider myself a lifelong advocate for the recognition and inclusion of girls in all aspects of my personal and professional life. And the GirlSPARKS tools have helped me do that in a better-informed way.

You may be wondering, what is GirlSPARKS?

It’s a global training initiative working with organizations and individuals to deliver more effective programming for adolescent girls through an experiential and tailored Girl-Centred Design approach.

Now you may be thinking, why girls specifically? Well, unfortunately:

  • Globally, 1 in 3 women experience gender-based violence in their lifetime
  • An estimated 650 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday
  • 131 million girls around the world remain out of school

Girls across the globe face barriers when it comes to equity and inclusion in so many areas of life. But when these rights are invested in, there are benefits not just for girls but their larger communities as well. The evidence around the value of investing in girls continues to grow. However, a disconnect persists between this evidence and the ability of practitioners to identify marginalized girls, prioritize their needs in the design process, and engage them over time and at scale.

This disconnect is where GirlSPARKS steps in. Their Girl-Centred Design approach provides the skills, knowledge, and tools for practitioners to place adolescent girls at the center of program design and implementation. The method consists of three core modules:

Find Her: Finding the most marginalized girls through data collection tools

Listen to Her: Bringing girls into the center of program design through girl consultations and safe spaces

Design with Her: Tailoring the design approach to meet adolescent girls’ unique needs through learnings from previous modules

While organizations or other entities may think they know what girls need or want, I value the GirlSPARKS approach because it centres around girls’ actual thoughts, actions, and insight. And their input is vital when trying to sustainably and genuinely empower them through any method. Instead of creating for girls, GirlSPARKS helps you to understand how to create with girls.

GirlSPARKS offers training on Girl-Centred Design through in-person workshops and a free online introductory course. Through the broader GirlSPARKS community, practitioners can connect and share resources.

I began my girls’ advocacy journey through personal connection and informal advocacy networks. The introductory Girl-Centred Design course has allowed me to expand my technical training around advocacy. I have been able to apply the Girl-Centred Design approach to all aspects of my work – even if the population I am working with isn’t all girls.

It is essential to continue to expand our understanding of concepts, perspectives and approaches when it comes to advocacy and people-centred work of all kinds. GirlSPARKS provides an engaging environment and resources to initiate that expansion. Be sure to check out their website and social media to stay updated on all the resources they offer!

5 Things I’ve Learned from Malala Yousafzai

Today is Malala Yousafzai’s birthday. As an activist, advocate for girls’ education, champion of human rights and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala’s words and actions offer inspiration and hope to people all over the world.

In 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala as she travelled home from school. She was 15-years-old, and had already been advocating for girls’ right to education in her home country of Pakistan for several years.

One year later, on her 16th birthday, Malala gave a speech at the UN that cemented her position as one of the most inspiring, influential and important young people alive today. In the 4 years since that speech, Malala has turned personal passion into a powerful international movement working to transform the future – not only for girls and women, but for the world at large.

The same summer that Malala spoke at the UN, I graduated from university. In the years since that speech, I have been working to build my career in gender equality and human rights. As I’ve done so I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about what it takes to create change in the world and what it means to be successful.

Some of the most invaluable lessons I have learned so far – in both my professional and personal life – have been from the women I admire and look to as role models. Women like Malala.

And yes, she may be young, but the world seems finally to be getting the message – underestimate young women at your peril. I believe there is so much we can learn from Malala Yousafzai, and so in honour of her birthday, I’ve made a list of 5 lessons she’s taught me in my career so far!

1. Speak up

“We realise the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”

It can sometimes be easy to take the freedom to raise my voice, and especially the freedom to do so in safety, for granted. Malala reminds me that there are millions of girls and women without that luxury, and if we can do so must use our voices to make sure that that those who are silenced can be heard.

2. Be brave

“There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”

Malala’s story is one of immense courage. She has continued to fight for what she knows to be right in the face adversity that many could scarcely imagine, and she stands up time and time again against fear and threats and violence. Her bravery encourages me to be more bold and her refusal to give in to fear reminds me that I should do the same.

3. Be determined

“I’m just a committed and stubborn person who wants to see every child get [a] quality education – who wants to see women having equal rights and who wants peace in every corner of the world.” 

No matter what else is happening around her, Malala never wavers from her commitment to girls’ education. I often feel frustrated when it seems that change happens far too slowly – but Malala shows me the value of dedication and conviction.

4. Be knowledgeable

“None of the nine biggest countries in Africa, Latin America and developing Asia have increased their education budgets. Several are even making drastic cuts, putting more girls out of school.”

Malala’s knowledge when it comes to her cause reminds me that if I want to change something, I have to understand how it works in the first place. It’s clear that Malala understands the issues facing countries around the world preventing girls from accessing education, and it’s that knowledge that makes people listen up and take her seriously.

5. Be humble 

“I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.”

Despite her many achievements, awards and fame (she is the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize) Malala always speaks and acts with kindness, grace and humility. It might not be specific to work in gender equality, but it’s a quality I admire and try to replicate all the same!

Feeling inspired? Follow Malala on Twitter, make a donation to the Malala Fund, watch He Named Me Malala or check out her interview with David Letterman

Politics Affects our Health: the Case of Sudan

‘Social determinants of health’ are the circumstances and surroundings that influence an individual’s health outcomes.

Researchers have focused on social determinants of health for decades and there is now a general consensus that higher socioeconomic status predicts better odds of future health and well-being. While this notion is scientifically accepted, it prompts the question: what creates these social determinants of health? This has brought much needed attention to the ways in which politics affect health – both directly and indirectly.

‘Political determinants of health’ are the factors that shape the social determinants of health. This is a relatively new concept and is of particular significance for women. An example of the link between politics and health can be found in Sudan.

In Sudan, the political climate is shaped by religion and the constitution is based on teachings of Sharia Law. Currently, many communities face extreme financial strain as a result of failed past politics and/or war and insecurity. This has increased pre-existing and vast social inequities, including gaps in financial and educational opportunities.

The political situation in Sudan has had inevitable consequences for health.

Social disadvantage falls heavier on women. Until recently, girls have been denied the same education as their male counterparts. Lack of education leads to limited knowledge of health, which affects an individual’s ability to improve their own health outcomes. 

One example is the issue of sexual and reproductive health. Sexuality and sexual behaviour are sensitive topics rarely discussed in conservative, religious cultures like Sudan’s. Sexual and reproductive health and rights do not enjoy a high-priority status among political agendas, either, and there has been very little consideration of introducing sexual education into classrooms. However, many educators and health officials have started to support sex education in schools, resulting in increasing support by legislators.

Another example is the high prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sudan, at a prevalence of approximately 89% countrywide. The harmful practice continues to affect many areas of the country, and although it is legally banned, it is well-known to continue with the open support of many religious leaders. This is a clear example of failed implementation of legislation that has allowed FGM to remain prevalent despite wide-spread efforts by campaigns and NGO peer-education programs.

Under Sudanese constitution, child marriage, forced marriage or marital rape are not against the law.

Much of the country’s legislation does not provide any protection for women’s rights. As a result, many Sudanese women fear persecution.

One case that struck the international community was that of Noura Hussein in 2018. The 19-year-old was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing her husband – who she had allegedly been forced to marry – after he attempted to rape her. In the eyes of the law, marital rape does not exist, and so Hussein had no claims to self-defence as she was viewed as a belonging of her husband. The ruling was thankfully overturned after increasing international pressure on the Sudanese government. Hussein received a reduced sentence of 5 years in prison. 

Historically, women in Sudan have been forced to be subordinate to men. Although this is changing and vast improvements have been made, drastic changes to the country’s politics and constitution are needed to ensure full protection of women’s rights – especially their rights to health and wellbeing. 

 

Will Education Alone Suffice?

In a not-so-small village in India, where people earn their livelihood by farming, education is booming. In the last decade, this village has seen the birth and development of a government school and several private schools. A couple of these are even elite ‘English medium’ schools.

The village has also seen the opening of a pre-university college. But to pursue any vocational or professional course afterwards, an individual must travel to the next town. With no frequent bus connectivity, this higher education remains a distant dream for many. But the people of the village are still ecstatic.

Their children can now say a few words in English. They can identify the English alphabet. They can – sometimes stutteringly – say a sentence in English too. Their children are educated – a word whose purpose and worth many of us fail to comprehend.

In a real-life scenario, each family enrolls their child/children in school dutifully. Fees are low, midday meals are provided and children are taken care of while the parents work in the fields as daily wage labourers. By the time the children are back, parents are back at home too.

When boys reach 5th or 6th standard, they drop out of school to work alongside their parents. Another breadwinner for the family is more important than learning English – which ‘they will never use anyway’.

The girl child, however, is sent to school to complete her education up to the 10th standard. Some progressive families will even allow their daughters to study up to the 12th. All because it increases their demand in marriage.

A boy educated up to 4th standard will work from the age of 9 till 24, manage to buy an acre of farm land with the joint earnings of his family, and then approach the family of a well-educated girl with a marriage proposal.

If all goes well, the proposal is accepted and a marriage is celebrated by the families. The daughter-in-law dutifully takes up her responsibility of cleaning the house, cooking three meals, tending to the cattle and bearing children – often before she herself is even 20 years old.

This is the story of young adults in most villages here.

Is there any need for change? Who is to blame? Does something have to be done, or is this something to be left alone?

Schools and colleges were, at some point, new to many living in villages across India. Yet most people accepted them with open arms. My question, though, is if this education does not translate into a good job and decent pay, is it of any use to poor farming communities?

Ensuring we don’t just stop with providing schools, but focus on creating livelihoods through relevant vocational training is a major need for our people.

Making opportunities for working and earning available to girls and boys equally is the responsibility of every government.

What use is a 12th standard education if a girl is unable to support herself financially? After all, financial independence is very closely linked to security and safety.

I believe that societies change and adapt to the opportunities presented to them. Law makers, influencers and policy makers must understand the needs of a population with a view to future growth, rather than simply providing dead-end educations!