Did you know that you may use 14 000 menstrual pads or tampons during your lifetime?
Multiply this by the thousands of women living in Mpophomeni and it is no wonder that the local sewage system is often blocked and the landfill sites are overflowing. We hear stories of young women losing out on education because they are not able to afford menstrual products – some say that 30% of South African girls miss school when they are menstruating.
Emily Burnett is trying to make a difference to the situation in Mpophomeni, in partnership with local organisations, and shares the story of how she began this journey.
Before I moved to Africa (from America), I don’t remember giving a thought to how other women around the world manage their menstrual cycles. Buying tampons and pads was a basic necessity for me, a non-negotiable and never given a second thought. I hadn’t the slightest idea that, for millions of women and girl, sanitary products are literally inaccessible or an unaffordable luxury.
But my worldview began to change when I turned twenty-one and moved from Wisconsin to a rural village in Cote d’Ivoire. I settled into an Ivorian host family and shared a room with five host sisters between ages seventeen and twenty-two. They became my companions and cultural guides and taught me the way of life for young, unmarried women in their context and culture.
It did not take me long to notice their struggle with menstrual management. Disposable pads were available at little wood-frames shops along the dirt paths, but they were expensive and most girls could not afford them. The only alternatives were old rags, mattress foam, leaves, or straw. Of course these materials led to infections and were not effective in absorbing heavy flow. My sisters sometimes skipped school in order to avoid an embarrassing leak. Their school, like most in rural areas, did not have clean bathroom facilities or running water, making it doubly difficult to maintain good hygiene during menstruation.
After eight months in my host family, I traveled to a handful of other countries in West Africa and heard the same story again and again. It was humbling and frustrating to accept that my personal experience of managing menstruation, one that did not interrupt daily life or cause serious health issues, was unimaginable for so many women and girls. I decided not to ignore this reality.
I now live in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and I have connected with three local organizations that exist to break down the taboo around menstruation and bring sustainable solutions to adolescent girls. I am certainly not the only one passionate about seeing girls unhindered from pursuing their dreams and fulfilling their valuable role in society. The following organization provide hygienic, effective menstrual care products to girls and are worth knowing about:
Project Dignity: Founded by Sue Barnes, this organization distributes packs of washable, 100% cotton panties and pads to high school girls in rural communities. This product is designed to last for five years. Project Dignity hopes to end school absenteeism due to menstruation and lower school drop-out rates.
Dignity Campaign: This organization’s goal is to empower girls with knowledge about their innate value and worth, while providing them with menstrual health education. Dignity Campaign facilitators host workshops for groups of girls, creating a safe place for discussion about femininity, relationships, menstruation, sex, social pressures, and a variety of other topics. Every girl leaves the workshop with a set of washable cloth pads or silicone menstrual cup. Dignity Campaign aims for a deep cultural change by weeding out lies and speaking truth with one girl at a time.
Pink: Launched in October 2017 in the KZN midlands area, this organization seeks to supply earth-friendly menstrual management products and education to women and girls. It also creates jobs through a network of community agents and ambassadors. They supply beautiful, budget-friendly cloth pads, silicone menstrual cups, and degradable disposable pads made out of natural fibres.
I have partnered with Steph Bridle and a few other young women to run the Cherish Dignity Program (developed by the Dignity Campaign) in Mphophomeni.
We are currently facilitating the twelve-week program with twenty girls from the community, and our hope is to see more women trained as facilitators in order to reach a wider number of girls every term.
Midlands Pink representatives, Kimberley Kunene and Wendy Mkwanaza attended the Dignity Campaign facilitators training in Johannesburg from 23-29 April 2018. Kim reports: “We were equipped to train individuals and groups to increase their capacity in addressing issues that women and girls face in our communities. The program focuses on issues such as healthy menstrual management, education, and making informed choices about which menstrual products to use. We love that the program covers topics like Identity, Purpose, Belonging, Sisterhood, HIV/AIDS, Human Trafficking, Relationships, Puberty, and of course, Menstrual Management.”
Today May 28th is Menstrual Hygiene Day. According to this website, Menstrual Hygiene Day “will help to break the silence and build awareness about the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential.” If you want to be part, here are a few ideas for you!
Keep learning about the realities faced by real girls and women around the world and develop a sense of compassion that will motivate you to act.
Start Conversations with your friends and family about some of the stigmas around menstruation in your own community. Discuss ways that you can help change negative ideas and turn shame into appreciation and celebration of the natural, beautiful cycle our bodies go through.
Partner with people and organizations that are helping girls and women find their innate value, dignity, and purpose. If you live in KwaZulu Natal, start with one of the organizations listed above!
Someday, Emily hopes to go back to Cote d’Ivoire and bring some sustainable solutions to girls in the village she lived in for eight months. “It is hard to know that my host sisters probably still do not have good options to manage their periods, and menstruation is likely still a taboo topic in their community. But I am grateful for what they taught me about life as a young woman in rural Africa. Those lessons will continue to spur me on to love the women and girls around me so that they will know their beautiful place in this world.” she concludes.
Contact Emily on 076 355 5070