Women and girls face many challenges around the world that are unjust and often cruel. From child marriage to sexual violence, it is no secret that women experience oppression on a daily basis. But the natural phenomenon of a woman’s body should not be a source of shame, and it certainly should not contribute to her own oppression.
Menstruation is the number one reason why girls in developing countries miss school or drop out altogether. In Kenya, a girl misses an average of 4.9 days of school each month because she is unable to attend class during her period. That adds up to 20% of the school year. Without access to commercial sanitary supplies, women will resort to using such methods as rags, leaves, newspapers and bits of mattress stuffing to manage their periods. Not only are these methods uncomfortable and ineffective, but they can lead to serious health concerns.
The stigma that surrounds menstruation means that girls around the world have very little understanding about what is happening to their bodies each month. Our research in Nairobi’s Mathare slum has found that over 75% of girls did not know what was happening to them on their first period. They expressed feeling scared and thought they were sick, or had been cut somehow. This initial reaction to menstruation leads to a lifetime of feeling shame and embarrassment over a natural phenomenon that every single woman experiences.
Femme International is one of the world’s only organizations entirely dedicated to promoting menstrual health and hygiene through education. We currently work in Mathare – one of Nairobi’s most notorious slums.
Femme has developed a unique and innovative approach to this problem: the Feminine Health Management Program uses a two-pronged approach that combines essential health education with the distribution of sustainable menstrual management supplies.
We believe that education is the first step to teaching girls not to be ashamed of their bodies. Femme partners with local schools to lead the girls through a series of interactive workshops, covering reproductive health, female anatomy, the menstrual cycle, essential hygiene and healthy menstrual management. During these workshops, facilitators work hard to create a safe space for girls to talk and ask questions about their bodies, something they are otherwise unable to do. Not only do Femme’s workshops teach essential health education, but they work to normalize the subject of menstruation which will eventually start to reduce the stigma.
Once the girls have completed the workshops, each participant receives a Femme Kit. These kits are designed to contain everything a girl needs to manage her period in a safe, healthy and sustainable way. Central to these kits are reusable menstrual management products – either a menstrual cup or a reusable pad. By providing sustainable menstrual management products, Femme is reducing the financial burden of menstruation, as well as removing a significant barrier to girls attending classes.
In 2013, Femme provided nearly 200 girls with Femme Kits, and the results have been extremely positive. Girls express feeling confident, feeling free, and more able to participate in school and recreational activities.
“There is nothing to be scared of anymore,” one young girl told us, “I can do everything!”
By providing girls with the necessary education and resources to manage their bodies, we are helping them stay in school, and ensuring they are able to take advantage of every academic and professional opportunity to come their way. It is no secret that an empowered woman is the most effective catalyst for sustainable change, and keeping girls in the classroom is the first step.