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Femme International: Empowering Women through Menstrual Health Education

wrote this on September 30, 2015

It won’t surprise you to hear that women are among the world’s most vulnerable populations. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that women face more challenges than men, as they are often primary caregivers to their families while trying to survive in a patriarchal system.

But it might surprise you to learn that one of the most difficult parts about being a woman is also one of the most natural: menstruation. Despite the fact that it directly affects women everywhere, menstruation is rarely talked about. That is part of the problem, and it is especially obvious in developing countries.

A girl’s transition into womanhood is often marked by the beginning of her menstrual cycle, an occasion that is celebrated in many cultures as an important rite of passage. But in many parts of East Africa, it marks the beginning of a lifetime of discomfort, embarrassing health problems, and even harassment. It marks the beginning of schoolyard bullying, missed days of school, and the start of a lifetime viewed as a sexual object.

Menstruation is the number one reason why girls in developing countries miss school, or drop out altogether, and there are a number of reasons that contribute to this.

Extreme poverty, lack of access to sanitary resources, poor hygiene facilities, and the overarching stigma all contribute to menstruation being a barrier to young women in developing communities.

In many parts of the world, the customs and traditions surrounding menstruation are oppressive and destructive, and can severely limit a woman’s daily life. For example, in rural Masai regions of Kenya, girls are forbidden from touching livestock, preparing food or consuming animal products for fear of contamination. In communities in India menstruating girls must not drink from the same water source as her village. In remote areas of Nepal, the practice of chhaupadhi banishes women into isolated huts for the duration of her period and forbids her from interacting with her community.

These traditions are born out of a lack of understanding. Menstruation is not a dirty word. It is not a disease, a condition, or something to be afraid of. And it certainly should not be such a destructive part of a woman’s life.

Providing menstrual health education works towards breaking down these destructive practices. It is no secret that an empowered woman is the most effective catalyst for sustainable change, and addressing the menstrual taboo is the first step.

Femme International is a Canadian NGO that was founded to address the issue of deliberate absenteeism among adolescent girls. Femme promotes women’s health (specifically menstruation) through education, and uses conversation to break down the stigma and normalize the issue. The Feminine Health Management Program combines education and distribution to help girls stay in school—every day of the month!

Femme works within local schools in Kenya and Tanzania to deliver the Feminine Health Management Program to secondary school aged girls, ranging in age from 15 to 20. The FHM Program combines interactive education with distribution to create an effective and innovative solution. The workshop covers the reproductive system, female anatomy, the menstrual cycle, essential hygiene, as well as safe and healthy menstrual management. A big part of the program is to establish a safe space within the classroom; where girls feel comfortable asking questions about sensitive issues that they might be otherwise unable to ask. During the questions, Femme’s facilitators have discussed issues ranging from sexual assault, safe sex, boyfriends, female genital mutilation (FGM), homosexuality, and rape. It is essential to have a trained facilitator present to provide girls with accurate information.

The second component is the distribution of Femme Kits, which are designed to contain everything a girl needs to manage her period in a safe and healthy way. Central to the Kits are the inclusion of reusable menstrual management supplies: either a menstrual cup or reusable pads. These two options remove the financial burden of menstruation and provide the essential element of sustainability to the program.

The program is simple, and effective! After participating in the FHM program 100% of girls said they were better able to participate in activities in and out of the classroom. 78% of girls were performing better academically, and 83% had improved concentration within the classroom. Providing girls with reusable sanitary supplies boosts their confidence, personal health, and empowers them to be in control of their bodies!

Menstruation is a natural part of every woman’s life, and it should never be seen as a source of embarrassment. It certainly should not isolate, oppress or shame women. Providing menstrual health education to young women empowers them to achieve their potential, and take advantage of as many academic and professional opportunities as possible.

Learn more about how you can empower schoolgirls in East Africa!

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Images courtesy of Femme International

Sabrina Rubli is cofounder and Executive Director of Femme International, an NGO dedicated to promoting women’s health through education with a special focus on menstrual health and hygiene. Sabrina is an expert on menstrual health education and is currently based in East Africa.