Girls Shouldn’t Feel Ashamed at That Time of the Month – Period!

My name is Barbara Namuddu, a peer educator with Reach A Hand, Uganda (RAHU) and I would like to tell you a story. A story that am not afraid to talk about because I am a girl and am proud to say that being a girl is not a punishment.

I have been volunteering with RAHU for nine months now under the Peer Educators Academy program where I have had an opportunity to interact with my peers in schools. My interaction is mainly premised on listening to their issues so that I, as a peer educator armed with the right information, can help them overcome their challenges.

It’s not a surprise that as a girl, fellow girls always feel open to share problems that they go through with me since they know that I, have also gone through the same. I am sure any girl reading this is nodding her head in agreement.

From the peer learning sessions I conduct, I always find out so many terrible tales happening to young girls in school (but also out of school) as young as twelve.  One of those things are the experiences they go through during menstruation.

Burdened with cramps, heavy flow and surprise menstrual periods (since some are so young to know when the cycle starts), and interacting with rude or unsympathetic boys and men who don’t know how it feels to go through menstruation, girls are still living in terror.

Getting their periods  in school can be such a hassle. Some are constantly running out of class to the bathroom every hour, making sure they are stocked with enough pads, and some try to pretend and seem like they’re not  bleeding profusely out of their vaginas.

To some, If they’re caught off guard and their periods start in class, it  becomes their most embarrassing moment as one girl I interacted with narrated;

The shame of blood leaking through your skirt, boys calling you names, sores and infections, to mention but a few, makes you hate being a young healthy girl.”

Girls can you hear me?


Watch Barbara’s 6o seconds video on menstruation

This gets worse in a country like Uganda where menstruation is plagued with taboos. “If you’re menstruating and you climb a tree, then that tree will stop producing fruits”, “If you get periods, you must start having sex”, “girls in periods contaminate food”, “girls in periods cannot participate in schools.” etc.

Societies have the tendency to view women and girls as submissive to men and boys, and menstruation as a topic and issue has been stigmatized and made into a taboo topic that should only be discussed in private. This, in turn, prevents women and girls from accessing the information they need about menstruation and their bodies.

In this age and era, the last thing you expect to hear is a man or boy saying that a menstruating girl is dirty or can cause harm to others, and yet my interactions as a peer educator prove otherwise. It is therefore harder for girls to be in school during menstruation because these myths contribute to low confidence and fears of humiliation by others.

We need to make men and boys aware of the fact that menstruation is a completely natural part of life and ensure that girls are not inducted into puberty with feelings of shame. It’s unbelievably upsetting to discover how poorly we treat young girls — kids, really — going through this biological phenomenon that is no fault of their own, and more importantly, nothing to be ashamed of.

To overcome these challenges, we need to move beyond the stigma of menstruation. We need to educate boys and men on the importance of open dialogue on the subject. After all, men still make up a larger proportion of governments and corporate policy-makers in Africa.

It should be accepted that menstrual health is not just a “girl’s issue” but everyone’s issue: women and girls cannot drive development in communities  if their menstrual health is not given due consideration. Oh and also – don’t make us we feel ashamed at that time of the month. We’re not faking it. It’s nature. Period!

Featured image: Barbara conducting a focus group discussion. Image courtesy of Reach a Hand Uganda.

Let’s Talk About Sex – The Importance of Sexual Education

When I was in the seventh grade we started having classes about sex. Everyone thought this was an awkward thing to talk about and no one really understood why we had to do it. Everyone knew that we were supposed to wait until we felt ready and use a condom, right?

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few weeks ago I visited an upper secondary girls’ school in Tanzania and one of the girls came to me with a question. She was 17 years old and asked me what I thought about sex before marriage. Since sex is something that  you shouldn’t have before marriage according to the prevailing norms and and religious views in Tanzania, I felt quite uncomfortable. I didn’t want to step on her toes and say something ”wrong”. So I told her that in Sweden, having sex before marriage is quite common and nothing that is considered weird or abnormal. I was a little nervous of how she would react since it is a tricky and very personal question.

This girl continued to tell me that just a few days before I arrived to the school they had a class about sex. My first reaction was that this was a positive thing, since it is an important topic to talk about. She went on to tell me that the whole class had been about not having sex before marriage. The teachers were standing in front telling these young women that it was almost forbidden to have sex before they have found their husband. And when they do have sex, it will be only to bring children for their man. She also told me that she didn’t listen to a single word they said and that she had already had sex.

This is where the problem lies: this seventeen year old girl was very smart and had good grades but she didn’t know anything about having safe sex. No one have ever told her about using protection since they can’t even think about her being sexually active before marriage.

In Tanzania alone, 1.4 million people are living with HIV and in Africa as a continent as much as 26 million people are suffering from this disease. This is a huge and terrifying number and it is definitely time to react. In Sub-Saharan Africa women represent 58% of all people living with HIV or AIDS and for women in their reproductive years this is the most common reason of death. Looking at teenage girls, pregnancy is the most common reason why they die, either because of illegal abortions or from complications during childbirth.

The failure to provide young people proper sex education and information about and access to contraceptives in countries like Tanzania is resulting in devastating consequences. I believe it’s safe to say that every single person in the world agree that we need to eradicate HIV and AIDS and also lower the number of teenage girls dying from pregnancy, and of course decrease the number of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies in the first place. Proper sex education is crucial for us to achieve this goal, and a necessary part of securing young women’s future life and living as well. We can’t close our eyes from the fact that some young women – probably more than we think – will have sex before they get married even if the norms and religious views of the country tell them otherwise.

After my talk with this young girl I realized that my teachers talking to me and my classmates about sex when we were in seventh grade wasn’t a bad thing at all. But I also realized that I grew up in a society were the norm is to use protection when having sex if the goal isn’t to conceive. I have been raised with information about safe sex, contraceptives and the risks of unprotected sex.

So maybe I sat there in seventh grade giggling and thought it was quite funny and weird when my teacher showed us a condom, but at that time I didn’t knew how grateful I should be about knowing those things. I didn’t realize that there were other girls around the world not knowing that condoms even existed – or, if they did, not having access to them. We need to realize that sex is a part of young people’s lives, and while some girls and boys will choose to wait until they are married, many more won’t  – and we need to teach them how to prevent diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Additionally, even when women do get married, they should still have the necessary information and tools to postpone pregnancy until they themselves decide, with their partners, that they are ready to have a child.

Teaching youth about sex isn’t the same as encouraging them to have sex – and the consequences of failing to provide girls and boys access to sexual education and contraceptives are much too severe and negative for us to accept any longer.

Cover photo credit: UNFPA Flickr 

Unsafe abortions: The silent epidemic

Enabling access to maternal health services for women and girls including access to safe abortion brings to light sensitive issues in cultures around the world and presents a diverse discussion on women’s health.

The World Health Organization describes unsafe abortion as a silent epidemic  that requires an urgent public health and human rights imperative. The silent epidemic threatens the life of women and girls across the world and in Kenya as well. Despite its frequently morbid effects and high contribution to maternal mortality, unsafe abortion remains one of the most neglected global public health challenges. As a public health and women’s health rights issue, unsafe abortion is advanced by misconceptions about the procedure and misinformation about its legality, amongst other socio-cultural factors that in many countries hinder women’s and girls’ access to safe and legal abortion services.

Officer in Charge of Adolescent and Youth SRHR in Nakuru speaks at Consultative forum on SRHR hosted by Dandelion Kenya
Officer in Charge of Adolescent and Youth SRHR in Nakuru speaks at Consultative forum on SRHR hosted by Dandelion Kenya

According to the African Population Health and Research Centre, at least 2,600 women die from unsafe abortion in Kenya every year; 16 % of abortions in Kenya involve women below 20 years of age, while women between the ages of 20 and 34 account for another 73 % of abortions in Kenya. Unintended pregnancies that lead to induced abortion are approximated to be at 41%.  In 2012, an estimated 464,000 induced abortions occurred in Kenya.

At the core of the discussion is the role of leaders and decision-makers in supporting women and girls’ voice, choices, agency and health through advancing and enabling access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Legal and policy contexts within countries play a great role in enabling access to health for women and girls and aids in tackling maternal mortality. Unsafe abortions as evidenced by the above statistics contributes to a third of the maternal mortality burden in Kenya placing a heavy burden on already strained health systems in the country and counties.

The above situation is reflective of the reproductive health rights situation for women and girls in Kenya, which requires policy strengthening, stronger political will and continued lobbying advocacy. One of the biggest challenges and obstacles continues to be lack of sufficient action by different  levels of government ; in this light, the Kenyan government and other governments across the world need to affirm women’s and girls’ rights to health including reproductive health care. There is sufficient evidence on the need and importance of scaling up to reproductive health care efforts, and gaps within maternal and reproductive health care systems need to be urgently addressed, as illustrated by the increase in the number of unsafe abortions. The government should play a key role in educating key stakeholders on reproductive health including policy makers, healthcare providers, community members, and young people. Policy makers in Kenya should fast track implementation of the Constitution and implement progressive policies that enable access to sexual and reproductive health and rights to all.  Governments across the world have the mandate of taking care of the complete emotional, physical and mental wellbeing of the people including the prerogative of providing the human and financial resources towards this. In this light, the onus is on governments to stand up for  women and girls by advancing reproductive health and rights comprehensively at community and county levels.

Photos courtesy of Dandelion Kenya.

 

The Diary of an Indian sex-educator

Her: “Is it possible for you to talk on menstruation and child sexual abuse to young girls?”

Me: “Sure! What age are they?”
Her: “Studying in Class 5 and 6.”
Me: “Great! That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Her: “There is one thing though, you can’t talk about sex.”
Awkward silence followed.
I had no choice but to agree.
This was my first encounter with sex-ed.

I had been working with a feminist organisation in Hyderabad for a year already. I was 24 years old. I trained on legal rights, human rights and legislations but had not started training on sex, sexuality or reproductive health, for that matter. Those were reserved for experienced trainers. The above conversation was merely an introduction to the long list of conditions sex educators must work with.

To prepare for this class in a private school in a posh part of the city, I spent two weeks reading. I read about the human body. I studied how the parts looked. I read books for kids, for adults, for trainers, for teachers all in the hope that I would find the language to talk about sex without talking about sex. I worried about the language I could use. I worried about the details I could go into. I worried about the questions the girls would raise. A colleague advised me to stop fretting so much and just be honest and tell them everything I knew.

I walked into a classroom full of excited 10-12 year old girls armed with illustrations, stories and honesty.

Yes, only girls.

It was a co-ed school, but the boys were not going to learn about the body.

An illustrated and simple path was used to explain the body to them. We had two hours to ourselves. They asked questions about bodily changes. I responded to them as simply as I could, trying to conceal my uncertainty. To add to my unease, female teachers sat around the classroom like word-police to monitor the words used. I survived my first session.

After that first experience, I got more relaxed at doing sex-ed classes. I realised how relevant it was for girls (and boys!). I struggled trying to explain sex without saying sex. But, in order to conduct this session, we negotiated to do a free session on gender, with both boys and girls in an older age group. The hope was that we would be able to touch some more complex issues as well while staying away from sex.

One day a young girl from the same school came up after class to say, “Ma’am, there is a girl in my class who’s had…” Her voice drifted. She obviously had been warned to not say the word. I was terrified. How will I respond to her without using the forbidden word? What am I supposed to ask her now? Where were these kids having sex without any adult catching them?

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I found the words to ask her how she knew. She said she had seen them. The imagery that flooded my brain in those moments is hard to pen down. To be honest, I was shocked and worried for her and for the children she had seen engaging in the act. These kids were after all just 10. Seeing two people have sex must have raised all kinds of questions! But how could I even ask further?

After a few moments of silence, I summoned the courage to ask her to describe what she saw. When she explained, I realised she hadn’t seen them have sex but seen them kiss. I was relieved. But kissing was taboo for me to address as well. I struggled to find words to help ease her worries and to say that they weren’t actually having sex.

To explain menstruation or puberty -and not sex or how reproduction works- often means young girls and boys often have no idea HOW the sperm enters the female body. In their minds, it could have travelled through the mouth!

That is, of course, they discover the internet or maybe porn.

As I continued on the path of sex-education, it only got more complicated. This wasn’t an isolated experience where sex educators are encouraged to talk about menstruation, health, child sexual abuse and even violence without bringing up sex. We can explain the process of menstruation without talking about the male parts or male functions. But every time I left it at “When the sperm fertilises the egg”, a hand would go up in class, “But how?”

Soon I learnt that their curiousity and questions were not the only things I would have to tackle. We used illustrations while talking about the body, sex and sexuality because we felt it would be easier to digest these concepts this way. Once my colleague and I were training a group of 80 women on sexual and reproductive rights in the old city of Hyderabad. There were women of all age groups, married, unmarried, young, sexually active, not active yet,  the whole spectrum. We began with a few exercises through mapping of parts of the female body, including sexual parts, and in a box, the parts of the male body.

Girl: Woh wahan hota hai na.

Us: Woh kya hai? Aur kahan hai? Dikha toh do.

Girl: *giggle*

(Translation: That is there na?

What is that? And where is it? Do show us.)

It took us a good hour and a half to just get the parts of the body down on the chart paper. Many of them were not named and the shapes were unknown. Most of the women and girls didn’t know about the several orifices in the female body. Ovaries were the easiest to name. Fallopian tubes existed somewhere in that area. Vagina and uterus were hard to differentiate. They beat around the bush when asked about female pleasure. Anger, hate and pain were easier to pinpoint on the body; pleasure and joy were more difficult. Giggles were the most common response to any question.

They had trouble using the word ‘penis’; forget drawing it. We moved on by showing illustrations with close ups of the body parts-particularly sexual body parts. We also circulated a labeled drawing of the female sexual parts to show the many different parts of the body. To our surprise, one of the girls in the front row began to weep. I nudged my colleague who continued the class as I led the girl outside the classroom.

Talking about the body, I have learnt, can lead to varied experiences. The young girl confessed that she had never seen a picture of a penis before. It was overwhelming for her. She told us that it was not like what she imagined or knew. She was shaken by the open conversation we were attempting.

I was unnaturally nervous when I had to address my first mixed-gender group. I had fallen deep into a comfort zone of only addressing same-sex groups. How would I talk about this to both in the same room? Will they react well? Will the girls giggle? Will the boys be accepting?

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I was reminded of my own biology class on reproduction. My teacher made little or no eye contact with us. We all giggled.

Not making eye contact, was just like talking about menstruation, but not sex.

But I had learnt that eye contact helped; one could talk about sex while having to talk about something else.

It was a week-long course at a college in the city. HIV/AIDS was the chosen topic. We had to talk about it (without talking about sex, remember!). The only relief was there weren’t any teachers in the room. After breaking up the class into small groups, we handed out sheets of paper on HIV/AIDS and we sneakily added questions on sex, sexuality and masturbation.

The questions were provocative, attempting to break myths about masturbation as well as sexual pleasures. The effect was beautiful. The class was initially shy, but as they realised this was a non-judgmental space they began to talk about how no one had ever used the word masturbation above a whisper. After their group work, we addressed the questions together. Some of them more vocal than the others, but questions were answered in loud cheers of “Yes!” and “No!”

“Is masturbation dirty? – No.

Can we have sex during menstrual cycle? – Yes.

Condoms are 100% effective. – No.”

It was one of my most open and honest experiences during sex-ed. Students talked about how no one had ever spoken to them openly about sex which had led to several misconceptions -especially about the female body and pleasure. Unfortunately when they discussed the class with their political sciences teacher, I received a look of disapproval from her the next day.

I did not make eye contact; I just smiled to myself.

The sessions helped me see that it is never too late for a sex-ed class. A safe (pun intended), fun and explorative space – where we can use the word sex, like we use other words is what we need.

This piece originally appeared on Agents of Ishq. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Illustrations courtesy of Samidha Gunjal/Agents of Ishq