Improving Menstrual Hygiene in Zimbabwe’s Schools

My name is Marvellous Chimhutu and I am a student at Young Africa Academy, located in the Epworth suburb in Zimbabwe. I am a 15-year-old girl, the eldest in a family of five (two boys, two girls, and our mother Lisana) and currently doing my Form Three secondary education.

I am part of a group of learners who have been participating in CARE-supported guidance and counseling lessons since Form One.

Where I come from, people do not talk about pads and menstruation.

It is considered taboo to discuss these issues, and for a girl like me it requires bravery to ask for help. I discovered that this was not unique to me and my family. Many girls at school have challenges preparing for our first periods and we aren’t taught how to manage them.

Marvellous Chumhutu. Photo by CARE.

Like all other girls of my age, when I started having my period I felt stuck and didn’t know what to do. While l was very excited at the thought of growing up, I didn’t know how to manage it and was afraid of being laughed at if I spoiled my uniform at school. One time when it happened, I hid myself in the toilet waiting for the bell to ring so that I could escape and go home. I stayed at home for the whole week until the period ended.

What excites me and my friends is that the lessons we’ve received have raised my awareness of adolescent sexual reproductive health – among other issues and needs specific to being a girl. The most common issues have been around menstrual hygiene. The major challenge for me was getting pads to use, and then to know where I could discard the used ones at both at home and at school.

Our teacher, Ms. Warikandwa, noticed that most girls would be absent for days when they were on their periods, so she had to do mass counseling sessions to teach us how to prepare. I learned to keep myself clean. Later in the term, we all had lessons about menstrual hygiene, both boys and girls. We now know that it is a natural process. We have also tackled the topic in science and I proudly aced it.

The boys have stopped laughing at us when we spoil our uniforms (they now find the teacher for us).

We used CARE’s Community Score Card (CSC) as a platform to present our need for menstrual hygiene support from our families and at school. We were able to demonstrate to our parents, teachers, and school administration that periods were contributing to absenteeism and poor academic results among girls. After that, we made plans to construct an incinerator, install mirrors in the toilets, and for the school to keep emergency sanitary wear for us at school in case we need them.

The school was very supportive, and I feel proud that I was one of the advocates in this process. Now we have special bins to dispose of used sanitary wear and an incinerator.

My confidence has improved when I participate in class and sports because I can manage my periods.

I am also happy that I can also share information to help my sisters and friends at home. l thank my teacher for being there for me, I have all the information I need. I wish every girl could be empowered with the same knowledge and information that I have.

10 Bloody Big Wins for Periods in 2019 (so far)

1.Periods won an Oscar!

Netflix’s Period: End of Sentence, an uplifting film about menstruation in India, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short! This prestigious award was won even after an anonymous Oscar judge said men would not vote for the film because “it’s just icky for men.”

2. Free menstrual products hit England

2019 has been a BIG year for menstrual equality in England. After the inspiring Amika George launched the #FreePeriods campaign, things really took off. The government listened and took action. First schools offered free menstrual products, and a few months later the NHS followed.

3. Period books galore

This is the year of the period books. From the Children’s book The Moon Within to books such as the Managed Body and Period Power, the beauty of periods and the strength of menstruators’ activism is showcased in beautiful hardback. Oh – and let’s not forget Germany’s ingenious effort to curtail the tampon tax… the tampon book!

4. Standing up for better products in Kenya

March brought the fantastic #MyAlwaysExperience campaign to Kenya. Women called for a boycott of Always sanitary towels, accusing the manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble, of supplying the African market with substandard products. Their experiences ranged from rashes, itchiness, bad smell and discomfort. The campaign showed the power of voices to stand up to the injustice of low-quality menstrual products!

5. Periods took the issue

In May, periods literally covered the May issue of Scientific American, which for the first time focused a whole issue specifically on women’s reproductive health! What is the real purpose of a period? What are the consequences of gaps in medical understandings of menstruation? All was answered in this special edition.

6. South Africa campaign win

In April, the value-added tax on period products went from 15% to 0% in South Africa, all through the bloody hard work of the #BecauseWeBleed & #TamponTaxMustFall campaigns.

7. Period emoji launched

2019 saw the newest emoji make crimson waves across social media thanks to Plan International UK and a number of other fantastic activists. The red blood droplet is symbolic of menstruation and also of the fact that periods are not shameful!

8. Goodbye US Tampon Tax (well kind of)

This year saw more states in the US eliminate the ‘tampon tax’ – including Louisiana and Utah. That now makes a total of nine states which have given menstrual products a medical supply tax exemption, aligning them with products like condoms, dandruff shampoo, gauze and chapstick.

9. ‘Nothing’s more cuterus than your uterus’!

A medical congress in Bengaluru shot period pads to the headlines by creating the longest line of sanitary pads EVER! This Guinness World Record included about 500 people who arranged more than 10,000 pads in a line stretching up to 1,078 metres long. It took almost 8 hours to complete!

10. Menstrual Hygiene Day: bigger, louder, bloodier

This Menstrual Hygiene Day is set to be bigger and better than ever. Bringing together activists, program staff, people who menstruate and many more there’s a whole flow of social media movement today. Check out Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting some myths around menstruation.

Follow #MenstruationMatters and #MHDay2019 and read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org to make sure you keep in the bloody loop! ?

The Importance of Menstrual Health Education

Lack of education about menstruation is one of the many barriers to achieving adequate menstrual hygiene worldwide.

Earlier this year, England’s Department of Education released new guidelines for sex and health education in the school curriculum.

The guidelines include adding menstrual health education for girls and boys in primary schools. This is the first change in the sex and relationship education guidelines since 2000, after recognition by the government that the curriculum was “outdated.”

The new guidelines also include important information on female genital mutilation (FGM) – with focus on the illegality of the practice and support networks available for those affected. This information will be taught in secondary schools, where sex education is mandatory in England.

For all ages, the new guidelines include education on mental health – such as teaching students how to identify symptoms of anxiety in their peers. Students will also explore the risks associated with sexting.

A 2018 report by Plan International UK highlighted the experience of British girls with menstruation, including their existing knowledge of periods. Girls interviewed in focus groups used several negative words to describe their periods, such as “painful,” “uncomfortable” and “inconvenient.” To describe their first periods, girls also used negative expressions like “scarred,” “embarrassed,” “unprepared” and “I thought I was going to die.”

Each country in the UK – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – has its own guidelines for menstrual health education. This meant that not all girls and young women featured in the report had the same experience with learning about menstruation in school.

A 2017 survey found that 1 in 7 girls and young women in the UK didn’t know what was happening when they got their first period. 1 in 4 stated that they felt unprepared for the beginning of menstruation.

Even girls who reported having learned about periods in school mentioned that their education focused solely only on the biology of the menstrual cycle. Lessons left out important information about their bodies’ anatomy and the use of sanitary products.

This lack of menstrual education and support doesn’t even take into consideration the added information needed on menstruation as it relates to people who are transgender, intersex, or non-binary.

Both the Plan International UK report and the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day initiative highlight the fact that most conversations about menstruation are heavily gendered. Current education assumes that all who menstruate identify as women and have typically ‘female’ experiences of their periods.

One way to be more inclusive in conversations about periods is to include non-gendered language. For example, we can say “menstrual products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”

Providing young people with comprehensive menstrual and sexual education will not solve all the problems related to menstruation in the world.

It won’t, for example, address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties. It is, however, a good place to begin. Education is needed so that no young person feels scared of dying when they have their first period.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

Yes, I’m on my Period. No, I’m Not Dirty.

Today, my period came a couple of days earlier than usual so it caught me off guard at work. I asked a co-worker if she had a pad or tampon I could borrow. She handed me a case that she expected me to take to the bathroom and return.

Instead, I opened it and took out the pad. She looked at me and asked, “don’t you mind walking around with it?” I replied, “I don’t, it’s perfectly natural.” When I returned to my desk I started thinking…why is being in your period still frowned upon? God forbid someone hears you say the word ‘menstruation’, because it is ‘rude’ to talk about the topic in public.

It’s 2019 and the cashier at the drug store still looks at me strangely when I buy tampons and say no thank you when she offers me a plastic bag. How dare I walk down the street without hiding my malign purchase?

For centuries, women on their periods have been thought of as ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’. This has to stop. It is a social construction that leads to gender discrimination, misinformation of facts and taboos.

This experience I had at work came at a very convenient moment since last week the documentary Period. End of Sentence won an Oscar. This brilliant documentary shows us how women in rural India fight for menstrual equality. But our sisters in India aren’t the only ones battling with this issue.

At least 500 million women and girls globally lack space and supplies for handling their periods.

In Mexico, where 44% of our women live in poverty, many don’t even have access to decent period care, let alone healthcare supplies. This lack of healthcare access causes them to live in hygiene crisis and at risk of infection.

In some countries, menstrual supplies are no longer taxed and in others they are totally free of cost. Governments needs to be on our side with these initiatives so women from more vulnerable social situations don’t have to choose between food on their plate or menstrual supplies.

As women, we need to empower other women to speak freely about their periods without embarrassment or shame.

We need to speak our minds when we are faced with stigma and taboo.

Men need to stop ignoring or repelling us whenever we talk about menstruation and get involved in listening to what this process means to us and how we get through it.

It’s 2019. Menstruation is natural. Let’s end period taboo once and for all.

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What Can I Tell You About Uganda?

What do you know about Uganda? I asked myself while booking my flight to Entebbe. That was two months ago.

I have been working for the Swedish Organization for Global Health for almost 2 years now and involved in the evaluation of our project on maternal and newborn health in Uganda (Mama & Family Project) for more than year. I should know a lot.

But, knowing a place based on paper, other people’s experience, and Google is not really knowing a place. The only way to truly know about a country and its culture is to experience them for yourself.

As my plane took off, ideas and images swirled in my head, some based on pictures I had seen and some creations of my imagination. I was excited and open to the challenge of truly discovering the country and the work. I had a smile on my face when I landed. Ready to learn! I thought to myself.

Geographically, Uganda is located on the Central East part of the African continent. It is surrounded by many countries, Kenya, Tanzania, South Sudan, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Though not located on a coast, Uganda has a great source of water, Late Victoria – the biggest tropical lake on earth. However, this is information that you could easily find on Google. What can I tell you about Uganda that you cannot find out yourself on the internet?

I can tell you about ‘You’re Welcome!’ – the phrase I heard the most during my time in Iganga, a small city located around 3 hours east of Entebbe. ‘You’re welcome!’, not as a response to my ‘thank you’, but as ‘Hello, we are happy to have you here’. I immediately felt at home in a place I had never been before with people I had never met. This is what Uganda felt to me: welcoming.

Scientists, who didn’t know me at all, welcomed me at their amazing research facility of infectious diseases in Entebbe. The UDHA team welcomed me when I arrived at the office the next day. Fancy, a midwife of the Mama & Family Project, welcomed me at the Maina Clinic. The women in the villages I visited welcomed my excited soul and shy presence. 

SOGH Mama & Family Team. Photo Credit: SOGH

What else is Uganda (at least for me)? Uganda is red sand, everywhere. The sand gets into your shoes, into the tiny space between your glasses lenses and frame, even into your ears. But that color… That color just captured me. I was in love, I am in love with it. The warm feeling of the sun on the skin, a warm hug, that was, is, the red sand for me.

What would I miss the most about this place? You’re welcome, the red sand and for sure the people… Moses, Jarius, Sumaya, Fariba, John, Sulaiman, Tabisa, Rose, Zainabu, Olivia, Fancy, Sarah, Betty, the waitress at Smile and Dine, the nurse at the hospital, Joffrey, and many more. All the people I had met contributed to our work, not just by telling me about menstrual health in Uganda but also by giving me the opportunity to understand the culture and their country.

Menstrual health is a social issue because it doesn’t concern just health, but also education, infrastructures, culture and beliefs. Menstrual health is the kind of topic that needs cultural insight for true understanding.

What else is Iganga? Iganga is animals running around everywhere, chips from a street vendor, houses painted with coca cola commercials, music from a local band, water bottles, slow internet, car rides, ‘jumping’ roads, great driving skills, kids’ ‘hello, bye’, kids, kids and kids, walks, old men and checkers, becoming a ‘latrine pro’, slow pace, smiles and high dreams, collaboration, community and women, communities of women.

All bright and beautiful? No. Uganda is a low-middle income country. There is poverty, garbage piles, issues with sanitation, a high maternal and child mortality, malaria and other infectious diseases. However, many people already know about these issues. So, yes difficulties are there, but there is much more beyond those difficulties. Uganda is not the difficulties it faces, but the communities of people who rise up against them. Uganda is the community spirit of ‘going ahead, all together’.

Together we rise.

You’re welcome.

See you very soon, Uganda!

When will Menstrual Hygiene be Taken Seriously?

For a long time, poor menstrual hygiene in developing countries has been an insufficiently acknowledged problem. I believe that this is triggered by a lack of courage and insufficient political will to acknowledge the problem.

Zimbabwe is not an exception as little or no proper legislation has been put in place, despite considerable efforts made by pressure groups to bring the issue of menstrual hygiene before the House of the Assembly. It’s absurd that the response has always been negative. Politicians, programmers and policy makers remain reluctant to take this matter into consideration.

In 2014, Irene Zindi – Mutasa South Member of Parliament (MP) – brought the issue of menstrual hygiene before the National Assembly as a motion for debate. Speaking of a conversation with a school teacher, she said, “The teacher highlighted that some girls were using cow dung as sanitary wear. We need to think as government how we can alleviate the problems suffered by women through lack of sanitary wear. Just imagine how cow dung looks and create a graphic image of what our girls go through, 34 years into independence.”

Her words drew a lot of criticism from males within the House of Assembly who felt that the menstrual hygiene problem was not a problem at all, and as a result the motion lost momentum and nothing was done. This highlights that stigma is present even at the law making level, which is ironic in an era where issues of gender equality, and standing up against stigma and discrimination, have supposedly become a focus of our day-to-day lives.

In 2017, Harare West Member of Parliament Jessie Majome was also criticised for her ‘radical advocacy’ for women’s reproductive health by men who remain rooted in patriarchal ideologies that continually sideline menstrual hygiene as a trivial issue that is not relevant in Parliament. Afterwards, women took to the streets of Harare with soiled panties and clothes to demand free sanitary wear. However, amid all of this activism, the prices of sanitary products remain high throughout Zimbabwe – leaving women’s menstrual health in a precarious state.

Jessie Majome also critiqued the fact that legislators remain ignorant about the link between menstrual hygiene and the reproduction health rights of women and girls. She said, “the country is flooded with condoms of all shapes and sizes, yet there is failure to provide sanitary wear which is pivotal for reproductive health.” Her argument highlights that the menstrual hygiene problem is not being taken seriously as a problem at all.

The Zimbabwean problem is further aggravated by the fact that there is only one company manufacturing sanitary wear (Farai). This, in my opinion, is scandalous. If the company closes, the country will have to rely on imports and sanitary wear will become unaffordable for many. There is therefore a need for the government to encourage more companies to manufacture sanitary wear through the availing of funds.

More and more people are speaking up on this issue and putting pressure on the government to take action. This year, at the Zimbabwe Women’s Indaba, a school girl presented the Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangangwa with a petition of over 40,000 names calling for the provision of free sanitary wear in public school for the betterment of girls’ education and their well being.

Now women and girls in Zimbabwe are anticipating change regarding the provision of free sanitary wear, but only time will tell whether or not our country’s menstrual hygiene problem will finally be considered a ‘real’ problem!