taboo

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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Q&A: Oxford Dignity Drive

Hello to the gang at Oxford Dignity Drive! Can you tell us a bit about yourselves; who you are and what you all do?

In March 2015, Dignity Drive was set up by Wadham College students Rachel Besenyei and Niamh McIntyre, to raise awareness and combat period poverty! This took the form of an initial week of fundraising events, and a drive for donations of sanitary products which were then delivered to homeless shelters, and refuges around Oxford. We (Laura, Issy, and Hannah-Lily) took over last summer., and since then we have been raising more funds, and distributing products around Oxford. 

Why are you working for this cause? Do you believe it to be an international issue?

The issue of period poverty is especially prevalent in the UK at the moment because of the current government’s massive cuts to homelessness services, which often hit women harder. There has been a 50% cut in services since 2010, and in that time homelessness in the UK has doubled.

The lack of sanitary products for women is often talked about as the ‘unseen’ side of homelessness, and so even when people donate to food banks, often they just don’t consider it. Periods remain a taboo subject across the world, but we are focusing on Oxford in particular because of the widely acknowledged issue of homelessness in the city.

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So what do the Oxford Dignity Drive do to help?

In 2015 we ran a week of events aimed to raise awareness around the unspoken issue of period poverty, including film screenings, panel events, and an exhibition. Increasing the discussion around menstruation as a means of combatting this taboo is vital, and we hope that by doing so it will become part of every discussion surrounding homelessness.

The other major work we do is raising money, and taking physical donations. Recently we have been raising funds through union motions, and then delivering them as soon as we can to food banks and refuges in Oxfordshire. As necessary as raising awareness is, we know that this is a tangible, urgent issue, and so our aim is to provide resources as quickly as possible.

Tell us about some of these events that you’ve been holding, or plans you have!

Last term we worked on diversifying the places we donate to, and identified that there was a potential issue in that homeless shelters are predominantly used by men. So we contacted a number of women’s refuges, and are now aiming to help them too. We’ve also been continuing to raise awareness through social media, and are planning some more events, as well as a week-long drive in mid-February. You can follow our Facebook page to keep up-to-date, and watch this space!

What would you ask of local residents to do in support?

If you’re thinking about donating to food banks or shelters, make sure you include sanitary products as well as food products (this can include toiletries too, they’re all greatly appreciated!).

Spread the word, confront the taboo, and tell all your friends about Dignity Drive!

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Perhaps on a more national scale, what can everyone do to help?

It’s really the same as above; there is a nationwide campaign called #thehomelessperiod which has a big petition, and takes just 10 seconds to sign. There are also a number of regional campaigns doing the same as us – at universities in particular – so check whether your university has one, and if not you could consider setting one up! We can help, so please get in touch if you would like any advice.

Would you like to say anything else to the lovely Anthem readers?

We would like you to help us in raising awareness around period poverty. Whether it’s sharing an article, telling your friends, or making donations to food banks yourself. We are always looking for more people to help Oxford Dignity Drive as well, so locals to the area can contact us on Facebook, and we’ll let you know how to get involved.

Lastly, we will always continue trying to combat this issue, but ultimately we are picking up the slack of deficient government services. Write to your MP, and be considerate of any party’s policies surrounding homelessness when making personal political choices!

Sanitary products are not a luxury – they are a necessity. 

 

Oxford Dignity Drive do some great work, and you can keep learning about their work, and what you can do via the following:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oxdignitydrive/?fref=ts 
GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/sfdprg

Words by Briony Brake with responses from the team at Oxford Dignity Drive
Images by Oxford Dignity Drive