Have you ever been away during the heaviest day of your period, without tampons or sanitary towels? I’ve been there – peeking in toilets, searching for a convenience store… But, after my trip to Tanzania, I realised one thing. It could be a whole lot worse…
By Lysanne van de Kamp
Friendship In March 2019 I am in Handeni to make friends with a group of girls from 14 to 19 years old. They have been selected by their teachers as role models to create awareness about menstruation. The reason? The schools in Handeni are hell for young girls going through puberty. There are no toilets, no private areas to change their clothes and no trash bins to throw away used materials. There is also no water for them to wash themselves. Only crowded classrooms and large courtyards. You cannot hide anywhere – to peek under your skirt; to check if everything is in place.
Handeni, Tanzania Handeni is a district in the northeast of Tanzania. More than 400,000 people live there. Most of them are living in houses made of branches and mud, with roofs made up of grass or reeds that leak when it rains. Dorcas has been active in Handeni since 2009. We started building low cost houses, but discovered that there is much more need. A big problem is that only half of the girls appear at school every day, while everyone views it as a huge privilege. Why?
Menstrual cycle Nasra (19): “We didn’t know anything about the menstrual cycle. We used to think we might start bleeding at any moment. It is very shameful when this happens at school. Some girls who experience that don’t dare to show up for weeks.”
Since 2018 both boys and girls receive information about menstruation spanning 25 primary and secondary schools in Handeni. It already makes a difference that the girls (4200 in total) now know when they can expect their period again. But there’s another problem: the girls don’t show up at school when they are (almost) menstruating.
Ashamed Christina (full name: Augusta Christina Keiya) works for Dorcas in Tanzania as a Programme Coordinator for the Menstrual Hygiene Management for Her (MHM4Her) project. She explains why it’s not a matter of using menstruation as an excuse to skip school:
“Without a degree, you have no hope for a good future in this area. Everyone knows that. They all see it as a privilege to go to school”, she says. “But besides the fact that girls can feel sick, it can be terribly embarrassing to have your period at school… It goes wrong too often. Most girls just don’t dare to come.”
Kanga Most parents in Handeni cannot afford a sanitary towel or even underwear for their daughters. Instead, the girls get a kanga (skirt) that they can tie around their waist and between their legs under their school uniform. But a kanga barely holds more blood than underwear, so the girls leak very quickly.
On top of this, many have to walk quite a distance to get to school. The kanga rubs against their thighs as they walk in the heat, which results in wounds. The third, and perhaps worst, problem is the stink. The girls who are courageous enough to come to school try to stay away from others as much as possible. They isolate themselves, won’t play and feel ashamed. They also perform worse because they don’t dare to participate as a result of their insecurity.
Ashura (19): “Sometimes a boy sees that a girl has blood on her school uniform. Some boys are sweet and tie their sweater around the girl’s waist (so that the blood can no longer be seen). Other boys say nothing to the girl, but call their friends and laugh at her together.”
Taboo Until recently, talking about these problems was impossible. Menstruation is a huge taboo in Handeni. With your father or a male teacher – you don’t talk about it at all. Mothers notice it of course, but they do not always respond positively.
Winifrida (14): “I menstruated for the first time when I was 12 years old. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought: maybe I’m sick. I was scared. The next month my mother found the blood in my skirt. She called me, and said: From now on you are grown up. Make sure you do not play or talk to boys anymore. If you do, you can become pregnant.”
Nasra (19): “I already knew what menstruation was, so I told my mother when it happened for the first time. She said she did not believe me. To prove it, I showed the blood in the skirt of my school uniform. Then she said that I probably had injured myself while playing.”
Superstars A few brave girls were selected to become role models at their school and in their communities (photographed). They recently received AfriPart: washable sanitary towels that protect them from leaking for six to eight hours. They are excited about finally protecting their dignity.
Mwanahawa (14) says that she wants to be famous; she will be on TV to reach many girls. I ask her what she would say. Immediately she starts a speech: “When you have your first period, you do not have to be afraid. It is normal. You should be proud. You’re a woman now!” She thinks for a moment – what else does she wants to say – before continuing: “I would like to recommend AfriPart. It holds the bleeding throughout the whole day without leaking. And AfriPart is washable, so you can use it again the next day.” She ends her presentation with: “And do not forget to wash yourself every day. Thank you for listening.”
Dorcas is working on improvements at 25 schools in Handeni:
The schools will have spacious toilet areas in which the girls can change their clothes.
A growing number of girls get AfriPart: washable sanitary towels.
All teachers have disposable sanitary towels. Girls can ask for them at any time.
The schools receive trash cans, in which the girls can throw away used materials.
We’ll place water tanks at the schools, so the girls can wash themselves.
All students (boys AND girls) receive education about menstruation, to increase awareness.
We are training three teachers per school to break the silence. No more taboos.
There’s a theatre play at every school to start the conversation.
The next chapter Christina: “We are so blessed to be able to work in these schools, but there are still 50 of them that we haven’t reached yet. There also remains a problem – many girls don’t go to school at all. We pray that in a couple of years, we’ve reached every girl in Handeni. That is our goal.”
02 March 2019
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