Last year, I spent a month volunteering in Zambia as a part of a student-led, nationwide charity called SKIP. The aim of the project, which has been running for 5 years now, was to teach local primary schools about sex education. The initiative passes on knowledge and materials to teachers and runs information sessions on STIs and HIV to women’s groups. By educating children and women in these topics, we aim to increase people’s knowledge within the community, giving them the means of protecting themselves.
When I arrived at my first school I was given a government-issued textbook on sex education and a guide to what I should teach. I was so shocked by what I read. The books included phrases like ‘it is important to make yourself look nice for boys’, and included lists of desired characteristics for girls such as ’gentle, kind, good cook’. It seemed to me as though the country was decades behind our own, and I suddenly felt very overwhelmed. However, as I stood in the barely furnished, dusty classroom with that textbook in-hand, I looked around at my class and felt so driven to make a change.
My most successful, and potentially life-changing topics were periods and Project Mwezi. The so-called ‘tampon tax’ has been very present in the news recently, and rightly so as menstruation is far from a luxury. However, without access to sanitary products such as tampons, it can also be life-threatening. Despite being the most natural process for a woman, the presence of taboo in other countries severely undermines their rights; in Africa, 1 in 10 girls skip school during their period, and in India, 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.
Women and girls are prevented from completing their education and are even socially excluded throughout puberty. They are denied access to water and sanitation facilities when they most desperately need them. As a result, women turn to unsafe materials such as old newspapers and leaves to manage their period. Poor management of menstrual wellbeing is not only damaging to physical health but also mental health. That’s what makes campaigns such as Project Mwezi and Dignity Period so vital to developing countries. They teach women how to make low-cost, reusable sanitary pads from easily accessible materials. This knowledge not only helps them in the short-term, but gives the resources needed to teach these skills for generations, and even set up businesses by making and selling the pads.
However, this is not the only resolution. A key piece of the puzzle for changing attitudes surrounding the issue lies in educating men and boys. It is equally important to generate understanding amongst them so they can support their sisters, mothers and wives, and help remove the taboo surrounding menstruation. This begins with sex education in schools, something which is poorly under-taught and often sexist. As a society, we need to work alongside NGOs and other charitable foundations to open up conversations surrounding menstrual wellbeing, and create a world in which every individual is given the opportunity to have control over their own bodies.
All I can do is hope that I empowered those girls in my classes even to the smallest degree. To hope that they went home after school and shared their knowledge with their mother, sisters and cousins. To hope that enabling those girls to attend school a few more days a month is one small step towards gender equality in Zambia.
Until then I continue to support SKIP and other charities to make sure the message that #MenstruationMatters is heard.
Words by Rowan Duval-Fryer
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.
Images from SKIP and Femme International