For many girls around the world, menstruation is a challenge that can hold them back in their education and life more broadly. World Vision is working to overcome those barriers! Photo by Charles Andrew Kabena, World Vision
I have. Late last year, one Friday afternoon, as part of a personal “training drill” in the World Vision Australia office, I initiated a food-fight style, sanitary-pad “fight” around the office. To my complete surprise, my male colleagues embraced the opportunity to participate, learn and openly discuss the problems that face many girls in World Vision’s programs daily (and of course, ensured everyone received a solid “thump” on the head with a sanitary towel too).
Since then, I’ve learnt a lot more about menstruation around the world. I’ve learnt about the Nepalese practice of Chaupadi – where women are forced to stay in a separate mud hut for up to 5 days, and a Kenyan tradition that leaves girls sitting over a dirt hole for a week. I’ve learnt that on average 51% of girls in Ethiopia will miss 4 days or school a month, simply because of their periods. I’ve also heard stories of inspirational women starting their own businesses to ensure girls are educated and equipped to deal with menstruation. I’ve met incredible people and communities around the world who are banding together with innovative solutions to tackle the issue of menstruation from different perspectives.
Look, I do not like talking about periods. 18 months ago I didn’t even know what a reusable sanitary pad was. The past two years have been an incredible learning curve for me involving hard truths, awkward conversations, and flying sanitary pads. Two years ago I never would have imagined that I would pack 3 different types of reusable pads into my suitcase to present at a regional meeting in East Africa, but this month I did. Last week I showed different sanitary pads to a teacher in rural Uganda, to show her the global movement she is a part of… that’s a bit of a jump from having knickers on my head.
In a world where in some communities boys are celebrated as part of a ‘coming of age circumcision ceremony’, where expectant mothers openly discuss child birth, and where travellers can be heard discussing their bowel movements at a local restaurant, we still have young girls, hitting puberty, who feel completely isolated from their communities, who don’t understand menstruation or have access to sanitary items. Women who are stigmatised and thought of as dirty, because despite everything, we’re still not talking enough about menstruation.
But this is changing. In the last two years I’ve met some amazing men and women that are involved in menstrual hygiene management around the world, who prove that menstruation really does matter to everyone.
A closer look at the men in menstruation
Menstruation matters to men like Nick Waithaka in Kenya, who started the “Standing with the girls” campaign in World Vision Kenya back in 2014. Along with eight men and women, he cycled 260kms across Kenya to raise funds for sanitary products for 10,000 girls in communities across Kenya.
Things are changing because in Ngogwe AP in Uganda, we’re starting to see how menstruation matters to male teachers and school boys. After the school recognized that a number of female students were missing class each month they initiated a new program. Here, I met a school principal who has incorporated sewing lessons into the life skills curriculum, but instead of sewing traditional clothing patterns, he encouraged the senior female teachers to use reusable sanitary towels as the method of instruction with both male and female students. Through these classes teachers are also able to discuss, reproductive health and hygiene and now, when a girl has her period, she isn’t too embarrassed to ask for sanitary towels from the female teacher.
Menstruation matters to men just as much as women. I’ve met many men just like Nick, who see the disparity experienced between boys and girls. Men who feel passionately about education for girls, who see the invaluable contributions made by women in their lives or in their communities, and the opportunities missed by those very women. They realise they’re part of fast growing movement to change people’s mindsets.
I can tell you things are changing. I’ve seen entire communities of women in Australia hand sewing sanitary pads for girls around the world with Days for Girls. I’ve met Diana Sierra, a fearless Colombian woman who runs BeGirl, an equality driven business empowering women from supply chain to end user, to create menstrual products of high quality available to women in both developed, and developing countries. I’ve met the dynamic Rachel Starkey of Transformation Textiles, whose passion and drive for access to menstrual hygiene products around the world will change the way women do business. Using a micro-franchise model, she plans to empower women to sell sanitary products in their own community, giving them access to economic opportunities, and other women access to affordable sanitary products.
What does menstruation mean to me? If you had asked me two years ago, I probably would not have had much of an answer, but today menstruation means education, opportunity and equality. Today I would tell you that menstrual hygiene management is one of the biggest opportunities I see to make a long lasting change in our world.
Did you know that menstruation matters to everyone? I do now, simply because I am lucky. I am lucky enough to have been to school, university, gained a job with World Vision, and travelled as part of that. I am lucky because I was educated about my health, my body and my rights. But I am one of the lucky few.
We can be inspired by both the men and women involved in menstrual hygiene around the world who are striving for equality, health and access for women and girls wherever they might live. So give someone you know a gentle “thump” on the head today, and continue this conversation.