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.

Talking Frankly: Vaginas & Menstrual Hygiene

I have an insatiable urge to persuade my sisters around the world to tear off shame with all their strength. I yearn to tell them to deny society the privilege of silencing us when when we want to talk about things that matter. Things like vaginas and menstruation.

Here is the real deal.

We can crush the walls erected around us in the name of culture simply by talking about the well-being of our vaginas. During menstruation, things can get a little bit messy down there, and so you need proper sanitary wear to maintain freshness and hygiene.

It’s absurd that around the world, many are still found wanting of these necessities. Can you imagine the trauma women have to go through? There is a dire need to talk about vaginal health and hygiene during menstruation. It’s only by doing so that we will terminate the silence and the myths.

The vagina is a part of the body which must be hidden from view. It’s not something a woman can easily speak about – that’s how we are socialized. Therefore, over the years, generations have been enduring menstruation in silence and shame, and without proper sanitary wear.

But has the silence been beneficial? Certainly not. Our misery around menstruation is utter, lonely and complete.

This is why I plead with my Zimbabwean government – and other governments across the globe that have remained ignorant – to prioritize menstrual hygiene.

In Zimbabwe, the provision of free sanitary products – especially in rural and marginalized areas where women and girls live in poverty – should be a central focus.

Vaginas are naturally moist. This means that women without access to safe sanitary products during menstruation become at risk of disease and infection. I wonder, then, about the vaginal health of girls and women who are forced for whatever reason to use cow dung, leaves or grass?

This seems like a good moment to say that if it has ever crossed your mind that talking about the hygiene of vaginas during menstruation is disgusting, wait! What’s really disgusting is the fact that our governments are able to provide free condoms of all shapes and sizes, but have the audacity to reiterate that they can’t afford to provide free sanitary products.

Menstruation is not a choice.

You can’t wake up one day and decide not to have your period. It will happen whether you like it or not, and whether you’re equipped to deal with it or not.

Refusing to prioritize menstrual hygiene is a sure-fire way to further perpetuate gender inequality. In many parts of the world, women and girls constitute a larger percentage of those who are economically dependent. Many simply cannot afford the cost of sanitary wear throughout their menstruating years. Denying access to basic menstrual hygiene products impedes on individuals’ well-being as equal human beings.

The scales of imbalance need to be tilted and menstrual hygiene must be recognized as a priority in order to do so.

The girls and women using cow dung, leaves or grass during menstruation are, in most cases, predominantly poor, geographically and socially isolated from the rest of the world and lacking in political power. It is important for charitable organizations, advocacy campaigns and governments to come up with interventions that are compatible with their circumstances. A ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.

Although some of Zimbabwe’s most marginalized communities are still conservative, I can confidently argue that within these communities there are many individuals who are eager for change. They want it so badly, but they just need that push of support to get the work done.

I firmly believe that ending the silence and shame surrounding menstruation is possible, one community at a time.

Along with universal access to products, what if women could be empowered with knowledge to make simple handmade sanitary pads using low cost materials? I think it would be ground breaking.

The problem of unhygienic menstruation can be solved if practical interventions are executed well and the cultural taboos are challenged. Do you agree? I’d love to hear your perspective.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

?Check out 
Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting common myths around menstruation?

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! ?

Learning to Honour our Sacred Menstruation

I can still remember how I felt when I got my first period. I was scared, confused and really not sure what was happening to my body. My mother took me aside and explained that I was becoming a woman.

She taught me how to use a sanitary pad, but emphasized that this was a deeply personal experience to be kept private. As an obedient daughter, I didn’t share my menstrual matters with anyone – not my siblings, not my friends, not my father, no-one. It was my secret to bear silently.

Young girls are taught from their first period that menstruation is taboo and dirty.

They are taught that however natural it is, it’s also shameful, disgusting and a source of impurity. I learnt early that menstruation was not to be discussed openly, and I understood that no-one should be made aware of it.

All of this appears deeply illogical when you consider that nearly half the world’s population will go through menstruation in their lifetime. How has modern society managed to convince us all that menstruation, a natural bodily process, is a social and spiritual abomination?

As a woman in her late twenties, it is only now that I have decided to change my perspective regarding menstruation.

The emotional and spiritual work I have been doing in last two years has helped me realize that menstruation is something beautiful, sacred and worthy of celebrating. This realization has required a process of unlearning the beliefs and ideas I held about menstruation. It has also required me to embrace my body and love it in all its phases and manifestations. I’m learning to tap into the sacred power of menstruation and to understand what it means to be divinely feminine.

Menstruation is a gift. Think about it.

It is a process that allows us to give birth to new life. It’s a function of the wondrous uterus, a self-cleansing and purposeful organ. Menstruation is an experience that unifies women across the world. It reminds us of our great feminine abilities. How can we not celebrate this? Menstruation is deserving of more recognition and appreciation.

In many ancient cultures, menstruation was seen as a sacred and precious time. Due to the connection of the cycle to the moon phases, menstruating women were believed to harness great ‘shamanic’ and spiritual power. Anthropologists suggest this may explain the use of menstrual huts in certain cultures, originally intended as safe spaces for women to retreat at the ‘height of their powers’.

In honouring menarche, different cultures celebrate a girl’s first period. They view it as a right of passage in to womanhood and mark the occasion with a ritual or cultural practice. Menstruation is given the respect and the regard it is worthy of.

What if we chose to look at menstruation differently?

Let us remove the stigma and shame. We have an opportunity to embrace and acknowledge something beautiful and fascinating. Beyond the biology, menstruation is a spiritual time that allows women to connect to a deeper part of themselves. It’s a time to release old and negative energies, and begin a new phase of self-growth and reflection. To me, that sounds like something worth celebrating.

?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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In Conversation with Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma

Allow us to introduce you to Natasha Salifyanji Kaoma! Natasha is a Zambian medical doctor and the founder of Copper Rose Zambia – an organization working to advance adolescent sexual and reproductive health.

We sat down with Natasha to talk about starting her own organization, the taboo around menstruation and abortion, and how she takes care of her own wellbeing in her work. 

“I noticed a menstrual hygiene problem in my school. Not because the girls couldn’t afford the products, but most people didn’t know what was going on with their bodies.”

It can be incredibly challenging to work on issues considered to be taboo, sensitive or ‘controversial’, but Natasha clearly isn’t going to let societal norms in Zambia – or anywhere else in the world – stand in her way. 

“I believe that women, if empowered, can change the narrative of the African continent.”

This video was made possible through a generous grant from SayItForward.org in support of women’s advocacy messages.