Last year during the annual Menstrual Health Day celebrations, we reflected on Menstruation Matters. The purpose of the day is having “a day we should all feel free and happy to celebrate, despite the culture of silence around menstruation.”
It’s another year where we are celebrating why #MenstruationMatters to everyone everywhere- I still believe that the complexity, versatility and beauty of menstruation is still exciting and a topic to bounce happily about to everyone everywhere. But to many adolescence school going girls in Kenya, it’s still a nightmare! They’re ridiculed, they cannot talk about menstruation openly. It’s never a sign of pride it’s a curse.
When these girls are growing up they are never empowered to learn to anticipate and manage their menstruation; they have to figure it on their own. I've spoken to many teenage girls whose joy is deflated and instead they sulk all days when the ‘tell-tale stain’ shows up.
According to many school girls we have trained, apart from the 'tell-tale stain', it is also the questioning of others that bothers them. “Why are you not going to school?”the parents question. After they get back to school when the flow ends, the teachers don’t spare them from the“why” questions either- some go scott- free while others are punished for missing in class without any reason. How could they explain to their teachers they were absent for lack of sanitary towels / materials? To them, it’s something that’s unspeakable, a horror that plague all young girls and women through their entire fertile years.
Lack of awareness on menstruation and its management remains another big reason why girls stay home from school. They can lose up to five days per month, leading to loosing track of their school work and eventually dropping out.
When speaking to the girls during our menstrual hygiene management (MHM) training sessions, they wish they can be able to explain for missing out from school and get a comforting response from their teachers telling them “it’s your body young girl and it’s a natural process, own it instead of hating it or fearing it”
To empower girls with the knowledge on menstruation and build their confidence including breaking the silence and taboos surrounding it is a big task. We set out to the schools of Ndanai, a rural area within Bomet County. Some of the situations confronting menstruating girls and putting them at risk include family living conditions, perceptions of menstruation among peers and family, girls’ knowledge about menstruation and lack of support system at home and school. For example unimproved sanitary facilities that lack privacy is one of the main challenges that keep girls away from school during menstruation, a situation that remains even if they have the knowledge of how to anticipate and manage their periods.
In one of the schools we visited, I got a chance to remind myself of my school old days- rope skipping.
As I played with the girls, I noticed that the girls who visited the unimproved latrines had one girl playing watch in case the boys came closer or other girls wanted to use the facility (it was only one toilet in use). The girl acted as the privacy wall and door, which was lacking.
The training that we are running in these schools includes teachers and girls from years four to eight. The training focuses on understanding puberty & menstruation, menstrual myths and menstrual hygiene management. The sessions are in-depth, giving opportunity for the girls to ask questions and seek clarifications.
Menstruation is not talked about openly within the community and this was evident during the training sessions as many of the girls were shy and surprised by what we're teaching them. The demonstration of how a tampon works always gets astonished gasps! But at the end of the training the teachers, girls agree that the training was an eye-opener for them as far as menstrual hygiene management was concerned. Our follow-on work with the schools has shown that it has helped break certain taboos and clarify myths centred around the issue on menstruation and its management.
“Blood represents fertility and cramps represent danger and one has to be on danger alert” and"I would never burn sanitary towel because I will be burning my eggs and lose my chance of ever becoming a mother” are just two of the sentences we commonly hear from students.
I keep on thinking, is it because menstruation is a taboo and not discussed, even between mothers and their daughters, that these myths continue to live on, and are not questioned from one generation to another?
Teaching about menstruation is crucial, and what we teach will now be shared between generations, instead of the myths that were there before.
Through the training the girls become aware of the reproductive tract infections and of the menstrual hygiene practices that need to be followed during the menstrual days. They understand that personal hygiene especially during the menstrual cycle is even more vital . It also instils a sense of pride and confidence among the young girls.
Overall, Dig Deep's work in schools focuses on fostering health, education and individual self-respect and menstrual hygiene management is a key part of that. Integrating MHM into our standard schools programme has empowered students and especially encourages girls and female teachers. Further the program has drawn the attention of stakeholders particularly the county government toward this neglected feminine right in order to make our schools and communities healthier.
We all know and agree that Girls’ education needs to be promoted beyond enrolment and completion, but through regular attendance as well. So, let’s talk about it open, sustain the dialogue that will make every girl and woman proud of their body and status, let’s keep all the girls in school because Menstruation Matters to everyone, everywhere.