Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Periods of change -by Anna Banyard

I really enjoy provoking men by talking about menstruation. I love being able to talk openly about menses and warning others to tread carefully around me during that ‘time of the month’ because the hormones can make me act deranged and frightening.

Even today in England there is a stigma associated with periods. Some men respond: ‘don’t talk about it Anna, it’s not sexy’ or ‘if you’re going to continue to talk about this I’m going to have to leave’. Maybe my delight in the discussion is a product of going to a girls-only secondary school, or maybe it’s a result of receiving adequate information growing up, teaching me it’s a normal sign of becoming a woman, and something to be proud of. I know men know that menstruation exists too, so me telling them I’m bleeding from my womb isn’t anything that should surprise them (even if it does scare them a bit).

Many girls in Kenya, suffer much more from the stigma surrounding menstruation due to a lack of information, cultural taboos, and a lack of resources to adequately manage it.

There are many factors impairing girls’ education in Kenya. Some of these factors include early marriage, often because families need the dowry to ease financial stress, a lack of family planning and contraception resulting in early and unplanned pregnancy and gender roles in the family requiring female members of the household to be responsible for cleaning, cooking, collecting water, providing firewood and looking after younger children. In addition, girls in many areas of Kenya are pressured to undergo female circumcision to varying degrees of severity.  On top of all this they must manage their periods as well!?

Menstruating for most school girls living in rural Kenya is difficult and problematic, to say the least. Without the necessary finances to access the safe and hygienic products on the market, they use whatever they can find: rags, cotton wool, tissues, and newspaper scraps. Some girls have no access to any of these things at all, and so use soil, leaves, grass, dried animal hides or simply nothing at all. While these methods are uncomfortable and most unhygienic, all are ineffective. Because of the shame and bullying numerous girls experience from their peers when they leak on to their chairs and uniforms, many stop participating or stay home from school. This amounts to girls missing approximately 10-20 percent of school days each year, leading to a major decrease in school performance and grades.

The lack of information these girls have available to them means they have questions not only just about how to take care of themselves, but also about what is normal, what’s happening to my body, and what it means?

Dig Deep in collaboration with our partner organisation WASH United have included a Menstrual Hygiene Management syllabus in a comprehensive Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme targeting schools in Western Rift Valley, Kenya. We run workshops with young adolescent women to provide a platform of information sharing, demystify the menstrual cycle, understand body and mood changes during puberty, to know what products are available, how to use them hygienically and dispose of them correctly, and why girls should be proud to be women. Another goal of the workshops is to open discussions with boys, asking on their understanding of menstruation and normal adolescent changes in themselves as well as their female peers.

The workshop is done using a range of interactive activities and participatory games. We use a giant female reproductive system diagram to explain the anatomy (which looks weirdly like an angry cow face), show the stages of the menstrual cycle through an interactive calendar, and make bead necklaces with red and yellow beads to represent the menstrual cycle and help girls plan for their next flow.

We also invite external social enterprises with appropriate products that are renewable, reusable, low cost, environmentally conscious and hygienic to inform the girls of solutions that are accessible and preferable, that can keep the girls feeling secure enough to come to school all month round. The training is both fun and informative, which helps to effectively engage participants and ensure that information is well understood and memorable. We also focus on making the girls feel comfortable and safe. Even male teachers or facilitators are given names like Florence or Grace and asked about whether he prefers menstrual cups or tampons. By the end of the training, full of laughter and learning, many of the girls realize how much they like talking openly (sometimes graphically) about our flows, our personal tsunamis in our knickers.

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