Okay, this one may make some girls roll their eyes and not want to read past this sentence: let’s talk about “that time of the month.” Are you still with me? I know, no one really wants to talk about it but it’s something all girls have in common and really should feel more comfortable talking about with one another. All too often American girls seem to shy away from this topic and not realize that their girlfriends are the best source of support and understanding when it’s that dreaded time of month. Most of us find this an uncomfortable subject here– one better addressed by commercials and hopefully with no brothers or fathers in the room. In countries around the world, however, this is a subject that brings women and girls together, unfortunately usually outside of the classroom, back at home, where girls are stuck being just because it’s “that time of the month.”
thinkpeace workshop for girls recently handed over 3500 pairs of panties which are now on their way to Haiti. Our goal with our Drop off Your Drawers campaign is 5000 so we’re still working at it but this was a fantastic donation that will ensure that girls in rural areas of Haiti can attend school and live comfortably, covered in a way that makes them feel safer and more protected. In too many parts of the world, clean underwear and/or feminine hygiene products are simple luxuries that most people cannot afford nor do they have access to them. It’s something that we just take for granted. We know our underwear drawers are full and we know that we have products to protect us. Millions of women and girls will never know that kind of freedom. We want to share a story with you written by a wonderful friend, Denise Stasik, who has done amazing work with women and girls in Zimbabwe and Uganda:
We are all the same. Women are all the same. So just like women in industrial countries, women in Africa also have monthly cycles and are in need of feminine hygiene products.
Why do I state the obvious? Because I have met many people who don’t understand that women, wherever we live, have the same basic health care needs. And this subject of feminine hygiene makes many people uncomfortable, as if to discuss it is taboo for some reason. Yet here it is – an ongoing monthly problem for many women worldwide.
This need was brought to my attention in an odd way when I was working in Zimbabwe. During our feast day, a sudden wind sent our paper and plastic bags swirling across the sand. Quickly, young children jumped up and ran to retrieve them. Rather than returning to our table, the children ran towards their homes, carrying the bags with them, big smiles on their faces. I asked an elder woman what was happening. She explained that young women often cannot leave their homes for one week each month while they have their period, as they have no hygienic products. They use whatever they or their children can find – mixtures of dirt and grass, newspaper, plastic bags. They must wash and save these things to reuse month to month. Not only are these materials irritating to the skin, they are unsanitary and can lead to dangerous infections. In addition, I learned that no one could afford the equivalent of $1 US per pad when the daily wage earning, if any, was between $.50 to $1.00 US per day. If the cost alone is not prohibitive, the disposal of these products is. There is no weekly garbage pick-up. There are no garbage cans for disposal of waste.
I discussed this issue further with the school teachers and was made aware of the impact lack of feminine hygiene supplies has on most girls’ education. By the time a girl reaches adolescence she is likely to drop out of school because missing a week of school each month is just too difficult for her to handle academically. In addition, the anxiety of not knowing when Day 1 will start each month causes some girls to just stop trying to make the long walk to school. Uneducated girls become socially and economically vulnerable young women with few options to safely and adequately provide for themselves and their families.
We were fortunate to learn about a wonderful disposable, reusable, durable feminine hygiene pad product. Made of unbleached Killington Flannel, this pad can be used with or without underwear (yes, many women have not even one pair of underwear). With sewing patterns, thread and needles in hand, we laid out the cloth and prepared for our first class, which had been estimated by the elder women to be approximately 40 in attendance. Soon the women streamed in from their huts, and the total attendance was near 300 by day’s end. After the lesson on women’s health and hygiene, we distributed the bright orange and blue patterns. The women smiled, picked up the scissors and began to cut. No need for a pattern – these women could sew!
Such great joy of women working beside women filled the air. The excitement of this new product that would help make their lives a little less cumbersome was almost palpable. The female bonding was warm and wonderful as we embraced one another. We are all the same.
At the end of this trip, we distributed underwear to all of the women who had participated in this project. I held the large bowl filled with the many colored panties, and offered the first pair to the oldest woman who participated in this project. She gleefully chose a bright yellow pair. With a bright smile, she asked, “Now, how many women do I share this with and who are they?” It took a few seconds for me to understand that she thought this pair of underwear was hers for only one week each month and then would rotate through three other women before returning to her the following month.
I replied, “This is for you and only you.” She looked stunned as she clasped her undergarment to her chest. Through tears, she slowly and sincerely said, “Never before have I been given such a precious gift.” I was speechless. No words could express the many mixed emotions that I was feeling. This was a pair of women’s underwear, nothing more. But to her, it was a precious gift. The remaining women were just as excited to choose their pair. The yellows and pinks quickly disappeared, followed by blue and white. Strangely to me, all of the purple ones were the last to be chosen. I asked why. The women replied that purple was a “royal” color, which they related to “rich and powerful.” They did not feel worthy of royal.
We repeated this project in other African villages. After completing this project in one such area and returning 10 months later, one young woman approached me outside of our first aid clinic. She asked to speak with me in private, behind the building. I followed her outside. I wondered what was on her mind as she slowly pulled up her skirt. She wanted to discreetly show me that she was wearing one of these reusable pads. This woman had walked 4 miles to tell me how much this had changed her life. She was now able to leave her hut every day, any day of the month. She was able to cook and care for her children without the worry of dealing with her body’s needs in more cumbersome ways. Like many of the women in the first project site, this woman had also formerly used a mixture of grass and mud, which caused great irritation to her skin. She smiled and said, “Now I am like you because I can be a moving woman all days.” We embraced, and I held on a little longer as I again thought, “Yes, we are all the same.”
In this same African district, we had presented the pad project to the young girls still in school. The headmaster was thrilled, as she too noted the unsettling drop in female retention rates in school as adolescence approached. But when we returned the following year, the headmaster excitedly described a 39% increase in female retention rate at the school. She attributed this increase to the pad project and predicted that number would continue to grow. These young girls now have a realistic means to meet the needs of their changing bodies. The headmaster made several pads and stocked them in the first aid kit in her office. She communicated to her students that if a need arose during school hours, the girls should come to her office and she would assist them.
Some of you reading this might still be feeling uncomfortable with the subject of women’s menstruation and feminine hygiene. But if you are a woman living in the United States, you have easy access to products that allow you to navigate freely at home, school, work and in the world (and if you are a man, you are realizing “I had no idea….”). Let’s make what is a natural part of growing up more comfortable for girls in Uganda and make it possible for them to stay in school and build a better future. And let’s give Ugandan women the freedom to “be a moving woman all days.”
We are excited that our friends at the Giving Circle will be teaching thinkpeace girls how to make pads this summer at camp. These will go with our outreach packages for girls and women in Uganda. If you would like to donate some Killington flannel to this project, please contact us!