The Cycle of Life: Meaning of Menstruation for the Future of Girls

This post was originally published on Huffington Post.

My periods started when I was around 12. It felt messy, dirty, complicated. I didn’t like it — but, as most of us who are born biologically female, I dealt with it. For me, menstruation was a necessary evil — but nothing I couldn’t handle. It was certainly not something that had the power or potential to entirely alter the course of my life and future.

But for millions of girls across the developing countries, the story is very different. For them, the start of menstruation can mean the end of education, and therefore, the end of any real future prospects of economic independence, earning potential and financial security. In most developing countries, girls have little if any access to reliable information and education about their bodies, including menstruation, and many myths and taboos exist around menstruation and its meaning. For example, in India and Nepal, girls and women are often banished outside of their villages and communities during their menstruation because they are seen as “impure” or “dirty.” In Ghana women aren’t allowed to enter a dwelling with a man or cook him food while on her period, and in Islamic countries menstruating women are not allowed to touch the Quran or pray.

A major reason behind girls missing school or dropping out entirely because of menstruation is lack of access to proper information and sanitary pads. According to East Africa-based organization Femme International, which is also one of Girls’ Globe’s Featured Organizations, menstruation is the number one reason why girls miss school in East Africa. Co-founder and Executive Director Sabrina Rubli notes that the biggest challenge regarding menstruation in Tanzania, where Femme International works, is the lack of health information available to young girls. Rubli notes that If girls don’t understand what is going on with their bodies, they aren’t able to make the informed decisions about their personal health and hygiene. Additionally, Because girls don’t have access to proper pads, they use things like newspaper, dirty rags and cloth and plant leaves, which is unhygienic, can easily lead to infections and other health problems, and also often involves shame and embarrassment because of stains and leaking. Girls also lack access to safe, private and clean toilet facilities and running water in schools, which means keeping themselves clean and changing their “pads” during the school day can be near impossible. They face ridicule and verbal abuse from male peers and even teachers during their menstruation, leading to stigma and marginalization. The stigma and shame associated with menstrual blood isn’t confined to developing countries — we have our share of it in the Western world too, but at least we don’t have to drop out of school because of it.

Providing girls and women with information about menstruation and their bodies, and ensuring they have access to pads, proper toilet facilities and water, isn’t just about hygiene and health — it’s about agency, empowerment and rights. When girls have the ability to take control over their bodies, understand what is happening to them and why, and handle their menstruation in a proper manner, they are not only taking control over their menstruation but their lives. Education and information needs to also extend to boys and men, as well as family members, teachers and other key people in the lives of girls, so that harmful myths and taboos and the stigma associated with menstruation can be dispelled. This work is something that needs to extend beyond developing countries and reach our western societies as well, where tampons and pads are still taxed as “luxury items“ and images depicting menstrual blood censored from social media as somehow shameful or offensive. When Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon on her period without wearing a tampon or a pad, the Internet went crazy on both sides of the isle — women from all over the world came to Gandhi’s praise, saying she had taken a huge step in the effort to break taboos and shame associated with menstruation, but many didn’t agree with her choice and openly criticized her. Gandhi, who spoke at the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen just a couple of weeks ago, had this to say:

“If you ask me, stigma is one of the most effective forms of oppression, because it denies us the vocabulary to talk comfortably and confidently about our own lives.”

 

So what can you do? Here, I want to tell a story about a 19-year-old girl who I recently met here in Tanzania. Her name is Naureen, and after having to take a gap year after high school to raise funds for university, Naureen wasted no time to give back to her community and help local girls who didn’t have access to sanitary pads. She founded an organization called The Purple Box, which collects donations of sanitary pads and delivers them to two local schools to girls coming from low income families. Naureen placed boxes covered with purple cloth (purple because it’s the color of royalty and depicts empowerment, said Naureen) in a few grocery stores in Arusha, Tanzania, where shoppers can buy an extra pack or two of pads while doing their grocery shopping and place it in the donation box.

Tanzanian girls receiving menstrual pads through The Purple Box. Image used with permission.
Tanzanian girls receiving menstrual pads through The Purple Box. Image used with permission.

Naureen then collects the donations and delivers them to the schools, where over 200 girls are now receiving pads through The Purple Box. Naureen handles everything on her own, and hopes to be able to expand the reach of her organization and eventually add an educational component to the work as well. Teachers have already reported a decline in school absence of girls, and Naureen has no plans to slow down. At the age of 19, she is changing the lives of hundreds of girls — through sanitary pads. She is a great example of the impact that one person’s actions can have on the well-being of many others.

Sabrina Rubli from Femme International also reminds us that the menstrual stigma needs to be broken in Canada and Finland just as much as it needs to be broken in Tanzania. According to Rubli, we all need to start talking about menstruation without any embarrassment to break down this taboo, once and for all. Learn about the work that is being done by many amazing organizations in this field, find ways to get involved, donate your time or if you can, money – and most importantly, shed the shame associated with menstruation and embrace it with pride. It really is the Cycle of Life.
28th of May is International Menstrual Hygiene Day, this year celebrated under the theme “Menstruation Matters to Everyone, Everywhere”.

Illustration by artist Elina Tuomi, used with permission.

Breaking the Taboo: Ending Stigma Around Menstruation

It is very exciting to be speaking this week at the Women Deliver event in Copenhagen. The conference is the place to be for concrete discussion and examination of the rights of women and girls around the world and covers a host of topics from education, health and gender rights, to legal rights, land rights, and FGM.

Each topic presents an opportunity for change but, for me, one of this year’s standout issues is getting schools and local governments to consider how girls manage their periods. It can be an uncomfortable subject, but it’s a crucial one for measuring progress in girls’ education and rights.

Staggeringly, over 1 billion women and girls do not have access to safe and clean toilets to go to at all, let alone when they’re on their period. This means girls often go into bushes or hidden places when it’s dark to relieve themselves or change their sanitary wear, violating their dignity and privacy and often putting them at risk of sexual or physical violence.

During the day, attending school can become problematic if there is nowhere for girls to manage their periods in safety, with dignity. Imagine not being able to close the door on the world to deal with your period, particularly if you live in a culture that stigmatises that time of the month.  So some girls opt out of school, meaning that their education is compromised – the education that for them is often the only hope of a future free from poverty.

If they don’t complete their schooling, girls are at risk of early marriage, early pregnancy, and a continued cycle of poverty, alongside the ill health that comes from having to go without clean water and sanitation.

And that’s not all. There are so many taboos and stigma surrounding menstruation in many countries – myths that might mean they are not allowed to enter the kitchen, to cook, even to eat the same food or sleep under the same roof as their family in some cases. That’s totally unacceptable and an infringement of their human rights.

These facts and stats may come as a shock to some – but sadly it comes as no surprise to me.

Growing up in Kenya, I saw the effect of menstruation on my friends’ confidence.

Because some of them could not afford sanitary towels, they ended up using cloths and this affected their self-esteem. They would literally go into hibernation. Using cloths during menses is not safe because it leads to vaginal infections if the cloths are not well cleaned. They are also a source of embarrassment. Once in a while the cloths would fall out and the shame would affect the girls’ confidence. In 2012, a Kenyan television network aired a story on girls from Migori – a town in Western Kenya – who were prostituting to buy sanitary towels.

It broke my heart but I do understand that this is the reality for many girls out there. Girls want an education, and menstruation should never be a hindrance because it is a biological cycle that should be embraced, and not viewed as a shame.

This is still the case for many girls around the world. Elaine is 14 years old and lives in Madagascar. She’s lived in the area south of Antsirabe since 2001 when her family moved there, to escape a violent local tribe who had attacked her shopkeeper mother.

When she first arrived in Madagascar, there was no water point and only two old unsafe latrines, so she and her fellow pupils at school were forced to use open areas around the school to relieve themselves and, later, manage their periods – or to go home. Elaine would miss school for three days at a time during her period because there was no water to wash with nearby and finding water would take more than an hour.

However, since intervention by international NGO WaterAid and its local partners, Elaine’s school now has a new bathroom for girls. It has running water so they can wash and a locking door to maintain privacy. She now says proudly:

“I don’t miss school for [my period] anymore. I like going to school because I get learnings and I don’t get tricked by people because I am learned. Teaching is the best because this is the best heritage – the best thing someone can have is learnings.”

If that quote alone doesn’t encourage us to make a change, I don’t know what will. WaterAid’s #ifmenhadperiods campaign brilliantly captured the imagination of people around the globe last summer as it poked fun at what the world would be like if those in power—men—experienced menstruation like most females do. Would men hide away ashamed, miss school because no-one had thought to provide a safe toilet? Or, as WaterAid envisaged, would periods come out of the closet and be dealt with in a matter-of-fact fashion, even celebrated? We will never know.

But we do know that many girls face humiliation, embarrassment, restrictions on movement and food, missed education, and even violence because of societal and gender norms that tell us their periods are dirty and shameful. By tackling this issue head on we can help keep girls in school around the world, in turn empowering them to avoid early marriage, to participate in productive labour, and stay healthier, all of which reduces the likelihood of their children being born into poverty.

No woman or girl should have to manage her period without access to clean, safe, private toilets and washing facilities, and subsequently compromise their future – or that of their children. Menstruation is completely natural and an experience shared by half the world’s population. All of us—whether we are focused on education, sanitation, adolescent girls, or basic human rights—need to work now to bring this issue out of the shady margins of society and ensure that girls and women are supported to care for themselves during this time and at all times.

 

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Vivian Onano is a Kenyan youth human rights activist and recent graduate of Carthage College. She has a dream to help create an inclusive world for all and is supporting WaterAid at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen. She tweets at @vivianonano.

 

 

Featured image: Amina and Rahama in front of latrines built by WaterAid with funding from HSBC Malta on 10 November 2015 at a senior high school in the Northern Region of Ghana. Image courtesy of WaterAid/ Nyani Quarmyne/ Panos. 

Finding Perspective on World Water Day

Post Written by Jennifer Iacovelli

Three weeks after I realized my marriage was ending, I traveled to Nicaragua with WaterAid on an insight trip representing Mom Bloggers for Social Good. We visited the most remote areas of the country to see the work that WaterAid was doing with communities lacking clean water access and basic sanitation. It was a life-changing experience that allowed me to gain a tremendous amount of perspective.

I met women and teens who were trained by WaterAid to build wells and toilets for their communities. These were women whose husbands were typically away during the week working in the city, and teen girls who missed a tremendous amount of school, if they went at all, because of their household responsibilities. Fetching water from the river took up valuable time that they could have used to work or go to school. The training allowed them to not only gain valuable skills and earn money, but it also empowered them to become leaders in their community.

A few of the women even got to hire their own husbands for work when they needed extra help on projects. They beamed when they gave me this information.

I remember asking Linda what she purchased with the extra cash she earned by building and maintaining wells in her small community. She told me that she was able to purchase things like shoes and books for her children. Rarely did she purchase anything for herself.

I was struck by how similar I was to these women. While our circumstances were most certainly different, as mothers all we wanted was to provide for our children. To keep them happy and give them the basic things they needed in life.

Once my divorce was finalized, I started to focus more on taking care of myself. I joined a gym and decided that I wanted my physical strength to match my mental strength. After going through a tumultuous seven months, I was ready to take control of my life again. I did just that. The result? I gained more strength than I ever thought possible.

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Photo Credit: Wolfpack Fitness

Along the way, I found a caring and supportive community in WolfPack Fitness that didn’t judge me for my small size or marital status. I found a trainer that challenged me and showed me what my body was capable of. I found women and men who lifted each other up. I found a place where “like a girl” was not an insult.

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Photo Credit: Wolfpack Fitness

I also found a place where I could bring my passion for clean water for everyone. This past weekend we honored the strong, empowered women and teens I met in Nicaragua with a water-themed outdoor workout to celebrate World Water Day. We went #blue4water, wearing the color blue and turning our non-traditional gym equipment – cinderblocks, sledgehammers, tires and buckets – blue. We told a Nicaragua-inspired water story through our movements, even pushing a car up a hill to mimic how my team and I would often have to get our car going during our trip. Together, we raised $250 for WaterAid America.

My kids asked me the other day if I was stronger than their dad. They didn’t wait for an answer. They were already convinced I am. They see me work day in and day out to keep everything going. Though it’s not all that pretty or organized, I get the job done.

As mothers and women we do extraordinary things every day. I am thankful to have met Linda and the other women and girls in Nicaragua who are making the most of the opportunities in front of them so that they can live the best life possible. I only wish they didn’t have to live in an area where finding clean water and a toilet was such a challenge.

I hope you will join me in celebrating World Water Day by wearing blue and raising awareness of the fact that 650 million people around the world are still lacking access to safe, clean water.

Water Gives New Life to a Slum in Bangladesh

For women, children and communities around the world, water gives life. In Bangladesh, the water crisis affects both rural and urban areas, and is a matter of both water scarcity and water quality. While Bangladesh has made commendable progress in supplying safe water to its people, gross disparity in coverage still exists across the country.

The poor from the rural areas continue to migrate to the urban areas with the hope of being able to earn larger wages to support their families. Many of these people find shelter in Dhaka’s slum communities. These squatter communities are the most densely populated areas in the country. The enormous quantity of people living in such close quarters causes people living in these slums to have very poor health, compounded by the fact that water connections and toilets are scarce. Most people in these slums live on less than US $2 a day, and many live on less than US $1 a day. Acute poverty, overcrowding, poor housing, and unhealthy disposal of waste all play major roles in the poor quality of water, and life in these slums.

Since 2009, Johnson & Johnson and Water.org have worked in partnership to empower thousands of poor in Bangladesh with access to safe water, improved sanitation through WaterCredit. WaterCredit puts financial tools to work, allowing people in need to access small loans for water connections or toilets. From January 2014 through May 2015, Water.org and a microfinance partner organization, Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK) worked to disperse loans for water connections and toilets to an urban slum community in Dhaka, Bangladesh where women and girls were primarily responsible for finding water each day, and open defecation was the norm.

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Photo Credit: Water.org

Among those women and girls living in this slum are women like Shekha. Shekha faced many challenges related to not having access to a water source or toilet at home. She and her husband had a shallow tube well, but during the dry season the water table declined limiting the amount of water available to the couple and their children. Additionally, the water they could get from the tube well was contaminated with iron and bacteria.

Without a proper supply of water at home, Shekha and her children took turns retrieving water from a distant source. The trip took twenty-five minutes each way, and their need for water required at least three trips per day. The time they spent collecting water was time Shekha could not work, and her children could not attend school. Shekha knew this was not a sustainable solution.

Through Johnson & Johnson and Water.org’s program in Dhaka, loans were dispersed to women like Shekha who could afford to finance a tap or toilet for her home. The program benefitted more than 7,500 residents, 91% of whom repaid their loans with ease, and all of them now have access to safe water and sanitation. To enhance the sustainability of the solutions, Water.org also carried out an educational campaign to provide context and understanding for good hygiene practices among the community members.

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Photo Credit: Water.org

Following the completion of the program, Water.org measured the impact, particularly on women and girls living in the slum, and the results demonstrated success. Shekha shared, “Earlier we had to suffer a lot for collection of safe drinking water. Now I am getting more time for cooking, washing clothes and other work due to not wasting time to collect water like earlier. Now I am spending my free time with my sons, we are healthy, and we are traveling different places and meeting with relatives. We are very happy for getting access to sufficient clean water.”
From time to work and care for children, to having the resources needed to properly care for their personal hygiene, women like Shekha reported positive life-transformations as a result of access to safe water and toilets.

It is exciting to see Water.org’s scalable financial model can pave the way to progress and opportunity. Water.org hopes you will help them spread this message. In the spirit of World Water Day, today on March 22nd we invite you to join their efforts to celebrate the water within your reach by sharing what water gives you.

Want to be involved in #WorldWaterDay?

Go to WaterDay.org to create a share graphic using your own photo. Then, post your image on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram telling others why water is so important to you.