No Girl Held Back Because She Menstruates
“It takes enlightened men and brave women to change the world… Find the “enlightened” men, who want the best for their wives and daughters, and ask for their support”. Herta von Stiegel
At any given time, more than 300 million women worldwide are menstruating. Depending on where and what socio-economic environment a girl is born into, periods can vary from being an inconvenience to an all-out barrier to participation in active society. The great differentiator is access to menstrual hygiene. In 2014 Menstrual Hygiene Day was conceived to create a world where “no one is held back because they menstruate.” Unfortunately, statistics show we have a long way to go to achieve this goal. A study by UNESCO found that a staggering one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their period. Girls fall behind in education and often drop off the learning path altogether.
“Poor menstrual hygiene caused by a lack of education, persisting taboos and stigma, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure undermines the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls around the world. As a result, millions of women and girls are prevented from reaching their full potential.” Menstrualhygeine.org
Asante Africa Foundation works in the rural, off-the-beaten-track areas of East Africa. In these remote areas, disposable sanitary pads are not readily available. Also, in conservative African societies, conversations around menstrual health tend to be taboo. Boys, in particular, often shame girls when inadequate sanitary solutions fail them. Pamela in Kenya recounts her experience:
“One boy saw the blood stains on my dress and laughed loudly, drawing the attention of fellow boys and my friends as we were playing soccer. Some of my friends joined in the laughter as the boys teased me, branding me “dirty.” My menstrual blood had leaked through the piece of blanket I had tied to my underwear since I could not afford a sanitary pad. I couldn’t control my tears from rolling down my cheeks in embarrassment as I saw my friends laughing at me”
Stories like Pamela’s are commonplace in communities affected by ‘period poverty.’ Communities struggle to source life-sustaining necessities such as nutrition and expensive menstrual hygiene products, and school hygiene facilities become a low priority. Period poverty causes girls to drop out of school and becomes a self-sustaining poverty cycle. Asante Africa Foundation recognizes that normalizing conversations about menstrual hygiene and educating everyone in society, including boys, is paramount to breaking the cycle of period poverty.
Asante Africa Foundation’s Wezesha Vijana Program (WVP) educates girls and boys on menstrual hygiene. The program focuses on typical puberty onset ages 11-14, which is also the age bracket where girls are most likely to drop out of school. WVP includes boys as peer allies (33% of students) who learn about girls’ challenges. These boys go on to support their female peers as they overcome these challenges.
Boys from our WVP training demonstrate that through menstrual health education, they are overcoming the embarrassment and taboo that come with discussing issues such as menstrual hygiene. They are also actively supporting their peer girls and participating in projects to create supplies of reusable sanitary equipment. Asante Africa Foundation alumnus Issac in Kenya became a female empowerment champion after witnessing his mother’s financial struggles and his sister opting for an early marriage.
“I have a passion for female empowerment mainly because of how I saw my mother suffering after my father divorced her. She was not able to provide for us as she would have if my father was around.”
Issac’s chosen contribution to female empowerment is in the area of menstrual hygiene. He supports girls within his community by making and distributing reusable sanitary napkins.
Normalizing menstruation discussions within Asante Africa Foundation safe spaces empowers girls to take charge of their menstrual health. They overcome the embarrassment of what is a normal, healthy bodily function. Asante Africa Foundation alumnae Grace in Kenya is no longer afraid or ashamed of getting her period.
“I’m not afraid of getting my period because our mentors taught us we are starting to become a woman and you should be brave and you should not be shy or ashamed of yourself.”
Furthermore, our girls demonstrate that with male backing, they develop the confidence to lead projects that involve discussing and supporting menstrual health hygiene. Girls like Ziopprah are teaching boy/girl cohorts at her school to make reusable sanitary pads to help keep girls in school during their period.
Keeping girls in school during their period is paramount for global equality and prosperity. We are proud to be creating the next generation of empowered, educated women supported by “enlightened men”. For Asante Africa Foundation CEO Erna Graz, a 12-year-old Tanzanian boy embodies this enlightenment. After completing WVP training, he went to his father to support his younger sister’s menstrual needs.
“He went to his father and explained menstruation and the importance of supporting his sister with monthly products. After being educated about body changes in both girls and boys during puberty, the little boy found the confidence to stand up for his sister in an environment where a little girl could never have that conversation with her father.”
On Menstrual Hygiene Day, let’s celebrate the girls overcoming menstrual taboos within their communities and not letting menstruation hold them back. Let us also celebrate the boy allies who are supporting them! In the words of our Uganda Program Director, Geoffrey Kasangaki:
“As a father of two daughters, I am proud to be creating a future where they feel comfortable in their bodies and empowered to continue learning regardless of ‘their time of the month.’ I am also raising my son to support their sisters, friends, and a future wife as an ally and support partner. This is a source of great hope for me.”
WRITTEN BY: Gillian Deenihan