Teaching Menstrual Hygiene in Zambia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Sex Drive and Sadness

The side effects and symptoms of depression and anxiety can seep into every nook of your life. They can destroy your confidence, your energy levels, you can lose your social life, and your sex life can disappear. Those who suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can watch their sex life suffer and not understand why. You can sit by as you watch your relationship fall apart, or you can’t quite find your confidence to keep the lights on and remove your clothes in front of someone else. You can think that you don’t feel the same wants and needs that everyone else around you apparently feels, or not be able to pinpoint what exactly in you has changed yet nothing feels the same.

One of the less discussed yet still debilitating side effects of depression is a loss of libido. This can destroy relationships, the sufferer may not feel that they are providing their partner with everything that they want and need and therefore can acquire a sense of guilt and not feel like an adequate partner. This does not come from a lack of love for the partner, but relates to the struggle to enjoy life in the same ways that they used to. This is normal. At a time when they may feel that everything tastes of nothing and there isn’t quite anything that makes them feel strongly about something anymore, a lack of sex drive is perfectly understandable. They can still be head over heels for someone but not feel any urge to have sex anymore, they are intrinsically different things. Discussing this with the partner may make things a little easier for them to understand; communication is important in order for someone to understand what you are truly thinking. 

Another consequence of depression and anxiety can be a feeling of low self-confidence and low self-esteem. The thought of letting someone else see your body can be stomach churning, and the idea that they may find you attractive is baffling, but part of the self-care, if you have a mental illness, is to learn to fall in love with your body and to learn to find peace with yourself. If you aren’t currently okay with letting someone else see you fully naked, then build on it over time and learn where to draw the line of how comfortable you are. Never force yourself to do something because you feel like you should be doing it. If you are uncomfortable with something, work out why you feel that way and try to solve it or work around it.

Give yourself time, don’t force yourself into something that you are not comfortable with. You’re not alone in these feelings and looking after your mental health will help ensure that you have a healthy sex life. Don’t forget that every person has a different sex drive; what is normal for one person may be much higher or much lower than yours, having a dip is therefore normal for you. As with any issue discussed this week, if something is particularly worrying you, take time to go to the doctors so that you can talk about it.

 

Words by Beth Farrell
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.

The ‘P’ Word

A few months ago, Anthem shared this incredible video by Glamour that showed us exactly what happens during our menstrual cycle. I don’t know about you, but a lot of this was actually a big shock to me! It really got me thinking about how strange it was that I knew so little about something that happens to me on a monthly basis. And if you’re male, or grossed out by all things bodily fluids, don’t go away – because this is for you too.

Did you know that 48% of girls in Iran think menstruation is a disease? How about that 70% of women in India think menstrual blood is dirty? I guess some of you are thinking that this might just be because of a lack in education. So let’s think a little closer to home. Just think about every sanitary product advertisement ever. Have you ever actually seen any blood on one of those? Or just that bizarre blue liquid that, if anything, makes your period look more like an incontinence problem? You might think that that’s because there are people who are frightened by blood and that it’s just a regulation thing – but there is no regulation against blood in sanitation product advertising. In fact, regulations only require these adverts to not cause offence and not be shown too close to children’s programmes. Because God forbid children might see something that could prepare them for adulthood. And don’t even get me started on the actual content of these adverts. All the talk about ‘discrete’ and ‘you can’t even tell’ and choice phrases like Tampax’s ‘Mother Nature’s monthly gift’. As if having a period is something to be ashamed of. As always, society finds a way to ridicule women for things completely out of their control. Do I even have to mention tampon tax?

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I’m sure you have felt it too, either you or the person at the check-out being embarrassed by your sanitary products, or maybe if you were buying them for someone else. Or someone saying ‘oh god, she must be on her period?’ and your plummeting heart when you think “how did they know?!” Isn’t it common knowledge that women bleed from their vaginas regularly? For some reason, pointing out specifically that I will be bleeding from my vagina sometime in the future makes it all the more unbearable.

Periods aren’t talked about openly and that has resulted in girls not being prepared for it. Research commissioned by the period education campaign Betty for Schools in the UK found that 60% of women were scared and 58% were embarrassed when they started their periods. Furthermore, 44% of girls had no idea what was happening to them at the time. This shows a clear problem: the menstrual taboo. Why are people so afraid of something that happens so naturally? What is it that’s so embarrassing?

Researchers Rempel and Baumgartner (2003) have actually found benefits of thinking positively about our own menstrual cycles. They found correlations between positive attitudes towards personal menstruation (and comfort with menstruation generally) and sexual attitudes, desires and behaviours, including being more comfortable with personal sexuality. They also found that women who were more comfortable with menstruation had more liberal views on sex and became aroused by a wider variety of sexual experiences. Basically, women who were open and accepting about their periods had more sex (which included when they were on their periods). Now, you might think that just means that women with more liberal views are likely to have more sex and be positive about menstruation. But the researchers took this into account, as well as how susceptible these women were to disgust, and found that the relationship between attitudes towards menstruation and sexual behaviour occurred regardless.

One of the things I think would help women become more positive about their periods is actually understanding them. People are afraid of what they don’t know and this is the exact reason why a worldwide fear of something so completely harmless has taken hold. How can we expect men to show periods respect when we can’t even do that ourselves? So, male or female, start talking. Start asking questions about how and why the amazing female body does what it does. And to get you started, here are a few talking points and answers:

1. Periods can be regular even if they don’t occur every 28 days – some women might have them every 18 days whilst other have them every 32 – they only count as irregular if they come at different intervals

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2. Just because you have periods, doesn’t mean you are fertile – a period where an egg is not released is called an anovulatory cycle.

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3. Clots in your period are perfectly normal – it just means you’ve got a heavy flow – but if you’re going through pads/tampons faster than every 2 hours this could be a sign of a problem.

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4. PMS does not actually occur during your period, it stands for Premenstrual Syndrome and occurs one or two weeks before the period. Women can get symptoms during this time and during their actual period due to the changes in hormones in the body.

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5. On that note, there are some ways of naturally improving your PMS symptoms. For example, increasing magnesium a few days before your PMS starts will reduce cramping. That includes foods like nuts, beans, whole grains and even dark chocolate (woohoo). You can also reduce bloating by increasing vitamin B6 levels with pork, poultry, cereals, eggs and vegetables. For that matter, eating a balanced diet can seriously benefit your period experiences, including drinking enough water.

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6. And for those who are on birth control – the ‘period’ that occurs once a month whilst you are on them is actually a withdrawal bleed. This happens as your body readjusts to not getting the hormones it’s been accustomed to for the past month.

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Words by Jessica Yang
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.

Sources:
Bustle
Bustle
Buzzfeed
The Guardian
The Independent
Rempel and Baumgartner (2003): Rempel, J. K., & Baumgartner, B. (2003). The relationship between attitudes towards menstruation and sexual attitudes, desires, and behaviour in women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32(2), 155-163.
WASH United
Wikipedia

Halves, Wholes & Other Emotional Maths

We all grow up differently. Some people are self-conscious about their weight. Some people hate their noses. Some people think no-one is ever going to like them. Whatever it is, everyone has their insecurities, and from my experience, sex ed didn’t really make anyone feel better about them. The teacher was awkward, the students were worse, the curriculum was reeled off and that was pretty much it. The biology was covered, and ‘pastoral care’ mentioned, but what no-one really touched upon was how big a role emotions and self-image play amongst all this growing up.

I spent a lot of my teen years feeling uncomfortable in my body and insecure about how I looked. I was one of – in hindsight -many people that thought no-one would ever want them. I doubted that anyone would ever feel anything for me, yet maintained the hope that should something happen, it would be the answer to everything. I’d be fulfilled, complete and wanted, entirely satisfied with myself and my life.

Looking in the mirror and not only seeing the ‘ugly’ and the negative seemed an insurmountable thought for me. I was stuck in a rut of worthlessness, hopelessly looking to be wanted and reassured. I had the expectation that finding someone who saw more in me than I did would automatically bring happiness, irrespective of how I was feeling. I was not prepared for the emotional experience that thinking would bring about.

21244662_10211805042095761_2026440898_nThere’s that saying; ‘looking for my other half’, that people use when they talk about finding that person who is their soulmate. Whether that’s important to you or not, I think there’s something about this quote to bear in mind. No-one else should ever be your other half because you are already a whole. This is actually quite a new revelation for me, but one that has made all the difference, both to my relationship with others and with myself.

Adopting this perspective is, in essence, very flexible. It can mean that you need to go and be single and find happiness with yourself completely alone, but it doesn’t have to. It can mean constantly surrounding yourself with family and friends to build up morale, but only if you want it to. Whichever suits, my point is that no matter how endearing your environment is, the positive words from people around you cannot fill the sadness of how you see yourself forever. You must give yourself time to learn, to help yourself.

I am a huge advocate of drawing from the people around you. Having hated myself for so long, I have found so many parts of myself that I now love through other people and how they saw me. A few years ago, however, these positive words will have needed to be regular; I was in constant need of recognition that I was of any value. What they were saying wasn’t sinking in, because deep down I still couldn’t see past what I saw.

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When no-one was around to reassure me, I plummeted back into sadness, which took a toll on almost every aspect of my life. As I watched myself let everything slip away, I realised that I was losing myself. I decided that something had to change. I took a deep breath and a step back. I spent a summer with less social media and less communication with friends. It gave me a chance to reflect on myself, the words of others, and how I wanted to see myself. I built up confidence, proving to myself that I was of value rather than needing someone else to tell me this. It was a long process, and how I went about it may not suit you at all, but what matters is making that change.

I finally allowed my friends’ words to change my own mind, and as a result, I’m starting to embrace a happiness which is beyond fulfilling. This happiness comes from within. This is where we come back to that quote because that is what we all deserve. You are – always have and always will be – enough, but we need to take charge of our own self-worth to truly realise that. No-one can permanently plug that self-doubt you have, no-one can fill that space of insecurity forever. Using the people around you and their appreciation for you, you can build up the image you have of yourself into a whole that you become happier with.

While I think that’s important for wider life, it’s also important for the health of your relationship. You don’t want to be in a situation where you can’t let go for the benefit of yourself or your partner because your entire world depends on how their opinion of you builds you up. Even whilst in a relationship, you are two very different individuals who have their own lives but needn’t depend on the other. Value one another for the love you give but have enough confidence in your self-worth that you don’t need it to be satisfied.

As I said before, everyone is different, and everyone improves themselves differently. Your environment, be that a relationship, friends, or family is a gold mine for learning about what others value in you. The importance of the emotional awareness that sex ed neglects, lies simply in seeing this within yourself. In no time at all, you’ll find yourself taking the world by storm because knowing yourself – the ‘to-be-improved’, the value and the good – is nothing to be afraid of. Rather, take your happiness into your own hands and go for it, in love, ambitions or everyday life, all while knowing just what a good egg you truly are.

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Images from Rubyetc, Picture Quotes and The Online Odyssey.
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.

The Absence of LGBTQ+ Sex Education

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At the start of 2017, our government blocked compulsory LGBTQ+ sex and relationship education. On reading about this decision, and being asked to write on sex education for Anthem, I realised how lacking my own sex education was in the mid-noughties. It is a crying shame that my friends and I were so ill informed back then, let alone as teenagers are now in 2017.

We were taught about biology, not pleasure, and definitely not consent. It was very male centric, with the attitude that ‘boys will be boys’. Girls were taught to allow boys to experience these new feelings and to be kind to them if they get an unwelcome erection in your presence. Female masturbation, however, was an afterthought; described to us using a video of a woman on an exercise bike (which made exercise bikes very confusing for a time). 

Being taught sex education in a Catholic school meant that the word ‘contraception’ was mentioned once in reference to the use of a condom, but no instructions on how to use one. Again sex was seen as a means to an end, that end being babies. We were not taught about consent, what it is to be in a healthy relationship, porn, sexting, mental and physical abuse, and I never once heard the word clitoris.  

I was taught that sex was all about the sperm fertilising the egg, and a woman’s main role was as a mother. This left no room for discovery or intimacy, certainly not if you identified as anything other than heterosexual. We were taught sex education with the same attitude that my great grandmother had about LGBTQ people. When my grandma informed her that there were lesbians in the WRENS (Women of the Royal Naval Service), her mother replied: ‘”Don’t be silly, women don’t do that”. She didn’t even think it was possible. When I had my sex education, sex seemed a far off thing as the boys at my school either annoyed me or scared me. At this point, an attraction to women didn’t seem to be an option. It was not until I was twenty, and watching The L Word that this part of life would make sense to me. Coming out as bisexual in 2016 put a lot of things into perspective, especially how society views sex, and how culture comments on it. I was looking for representations of myself and found them to be few and far between.

When I had my sex education, sex seemed a far off thing as the boys at my school either annoyed me or scared me. At this point, an attraction to women didn’t seem to be an option. It was not until I was twenty, and watching The L Word that this part of life would make sense to me. Coming out as bisexual in 2016 put a lot of things into perspective, especially how society views sex, and how culture comments on it. I was looking for representations of myself and found them to be few and far between.

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On researching the reasons behind this absence in sex education, the common train of thought behind not teaching LGBTQ inclusive sex ed was the worry behind promoting the lifestyle. This thought process is wrong on many levels, the worst being that like all prejudices, it puts one person’s life above another; it teaches that heterosexuality is the norm. I mean, when was the last time someone came out as straight? I have read many articles and watched many videos on heteronormativity, and can see that this is where the absence stems from. From the government right down to schools and parents, people assume people’s sexual orientation, therefore assuming LGBTQ+ are in the minority. This leads to exclusion, and people feeling devalued. I have never understood why when teaching teenagers about sex and education, you wouldn’t teach them about every colour of the rainbow, no pun intended; it is of invaluable importance to their education. If I was an MP, a teacher, or a parent I would want thought-out, informative, joyful lessons on the subject that required more than just an hour before lunch. I would want young adults to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, pleasurable sex, safe sex, attraction, affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community, dating, online dating, and the myth of virginity.

I have never understood why when teaching teenagers about sex and education, you wouldn’t teach them about every colour of the rainbow, no pun intended; it is of invaluable importance to their education. If I was an MP, a teacher, or a parent I would want thought-out, informative, joyful lessons on the subject that required more than just an hour before lunch. I would want young adults to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, pleasurable sex, safe sex, attraction, affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community, dating, online dating, and the myth of virginity.

As a graduate of English and drama, I would also discuss how our culture views sex; the difference between a sex scene and sex, the difference between pornography and sex. I would teach people where to find LGBTQ+ representation, where to find feminist representation, and what it means to be a feminist, especially when it comes to sex. When it comes to sex we don’t give teenagers (especially teenage girls) the credit they deserve. Your teenage years can be the hardest as a period of constant pressure, questions and uncertainties about all that life can offer. The least adults can do is give them some certainty, and show them that they understand. School is meant to be a place where we learn about the world, about ourselves, and what we can become. I came out at the age of 24 – a whole decade after I learnt about how a sperm fertilises an egg. I had ten years to read all the sexy books and watch all the sexy films, and I had The L Word to confirm my bisexuality. I still think of the joy I missed out on, the stupid things I could have avoided, the days spent questioning and not acting. I think of that anxious lonely girl or boy who doesn’t have the strength to wait ten years. What if one person telling them their feelings are valid, or hearing that ‘love is love’ gives them the permission to start finding joy?

School is meant to be a place where we learn about the world, about ourselves, and what we can become. I came out at the age of 24 – a whole decade after I learnt about how a sperm fertilises an egg. I had ten years to read all the sexy books and watch all the sexy films, and I had The L Word to confirm my bisexuality. I still think of the joy I missed out on, the stupid things I could have avoided, the days spent questioning and not acting. I think of that anxious lonely girl or boy who doesn’t have the strength to wait ten years. What if one person telling them their feelings are valid, or hearing that ‘love is love’ gives them the permission to start finding joy?

 

Words by Lara Scott
Image courtesy of Showtime
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.

Let’s talk about sex.

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If I remember correctly, sex education at my primary and secondary school was brief and severely lacking. I have googled so much. I am 21. I shouldn’t have to be asking the internet questions about sexual health or calling the doctor because I started a new pill and now one boob is bigger than the other (true story). It’s not safe. A lot of research done into the effectiveness of sex education as it stands has focused on unwanted pregnancy and STIs, but it’s not just that people get infections; shouldn’t young people be enjoying sex?

Sex education, or rather proper sex education, has become something of a passion of mine in the last year. I decided Anthem ought to take part in promoting good sex ed to the masses, and since then I’ve been reading, writing, and talking about it non-stop. I’ve learned so much – far more than I ever learned in school, and I’m very excited to be able to bring sex education week to you all, via Anthem. Ultimately, there is no limit on who should receive education, particularly education on life matters such as politics, finance or sexual health and wellbeing. As our goal is to present accessible feminism, we invite you all to learn a little this week, and to discuss so that we might help each other.

Sex education is imperative to all people, worldwide. As already mentioned, I’m not saying this because too many people are getting pregnant or something, I’m saying all this because there is a lot about our own health that can benefit us mentally, that we don’t know. This project aims to encompass as much as possible, so expect posts on periods, body image, healthy relationships and boobs (and so on).

There’s so much to learn, and so with the hope of doing this project annually, please interact with us, and tell us what you love, or what you want to know about next time. Our lovely Anthem writers have done some serious research, and have delved into their own experiences to bring you their pieces this week. These are not easy things to talk about, and we are not experts, but we have been through a lot collectively, and we want to share our knowledge with you.

Personally, I’m passionate about this project because I believe it is worthwhile; I think it can benefit everyone. This is not a project to be associated with embarrassment or stigma, but openness and truths. We want to talk about these things because people don’t, and none of us here think that’s quite right! Let’s talk about things, let’s not be afraid! Lend us your eyes and ears this week, and we’ll try our best to inform you of what we’ve learned, and maybe get you thinking.

We could be very dark and serious and hit you with all the statistics about the consequences of poor sex education (I may still do this later on, it really depends on how I feel), but instead, we want to make this project as positive and inspiring as we can. Take part as you wish: read, comment or even share with your friends. Who knows who we can help, together.

The project officially begins today, but we will be posting at least once a day for the next 6 days, and we implore you to embrace the topics wholly (even if you’re not a fan of blood). Please enjoy, share, and most importantly, learn! We can’t wait to share our work with you, and hope you enjoy the week ahead.

Love Anthem xo

 

Words by Briony Brake
Part of the September Sex Education Week 2017.

‘Watermelon’: A Review

“It’s okay if the love of your life is your best friend”

Last Sunday night I had the absolute pleasure of watching Box Room Theatre’s production of ‘Watermelon’ at the Hen and Chickens Theatre in London, as part of the Camden Fringe. The play was written by Georgia Green and takes a new and exciting look at the role of female friendships in modern life. Quite simply, Watermelon follows two girls named Abbie (Alexandra Proudfoot) and Zoe (Grace Hudson) on a night out, and a boy they bring home named Joe (Henry Taylor). Yet in just 55 minutes, it manages to introduce so many different layers and subtle hints at a wider life I desperately wanted to know. 

In case you hadn’t guessed, I loved Watermelon (and I don’t even like the fruit). The piece was exciting and dynamic, and ultimately showed the immense skill of Box Room Theatre in all aspects, particularly in the writing, and acting that came from Abbie, Zoe and Joe.

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To me, it felt like a case study of sorts on all the different relationships we have. The cast of Watermelon portrayed fantastic chemistry but were equally all able to hold their own in scenes. A relationship between a girl and the stranger trying to sleep with their best friend is one I hadn’t seen before, but thoroughly enjoyed; the sharp dialogue between the two was constant and entertaining. 

One thing I found most interesting was how it showed the friendship between Abbie and Zoe. A lot of things they showed, I had never experienced with my female friends such as taking boys home or discussing sex lives, but then there were so many things I had experienced a hundred times over, like the classic boy talks or even facial hair bleaching… It got me thinking about how no one female friendship is really the same, and how lovely that is.

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Watermelon is a beautifully open piece of theatre that takes the audience’s hand and invites them to share these experiences. Friendships are complex and can involve so much worry, and so to have a piece of theatre normalise that in front of my very eyes was comforting. 

Although very lively and, at times, laugh out loud funny, the piece also enters into some intense scenes, and some equally tranquil ones too. Fear and paranoia come into play when Abbie’s character goes missing in the night, and the relationship between Zoe and Joe develops immensely through the next half an hour of the play. They took a little slice of everyday reality and gave it so much life and depth; the audience is thrown into the drama with no warning, and it allows you to experience a great deal more emotion whichever way it swings.

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In the above photo, you can see one of my favourite scenes of the play. The team at Box Room have a huge imagination but are clever in their delivery. This simple use of fairy lights and music gave such intelligent lightness to the personal drama Zoe’s character was going through. I genuinely thought about the light sequences for the whole week after, I loved it that much.

Watermelon is an excellent example of young new writing that we should be paying attention to in the theatre. A simplistic but secretly challenging piece that is dotted with feminist quandaries most of us face on a regular basis (but perhaps aren’t as brave as Zoe when it comes to resolution). There’s so much to discover and explore that it’s hard not to love.

Four Stars for Watermelon!

 

You can follow Box Room Theatre on social media, and keep up to date with all the lovely events they host (enough to satisfy all your comedy and theatre needs)!

Words by Briony Brake
Images from Box Room Theatre