Menstruation isn’t likely to be a go-to conversation topic for your next dinner party.
Talking about periods out in the open is just not the done thing.
In big and small ways, periods are often politely kept private, or else completely prevented from entering the public view.
Author and artist, Rupi Kaur, made headlines when an Instagram photo which showed menstrual blood leaking through her clothes was taken down (twice) for “violating community standards”.
And yet, women and girls are finding creative ways to celebrate their periods in empowering ways, sometimes with hilarious results.
But in other parts of the world, like Sierra Leone – periods are more than just an uncomfortable subject. Periods can mean the difference between reaching your full potential, or not.
Cultural taboos surrounding menstruation, combined with a lack of education around menstrual health and hygiene, and limited access to sanitary products, have had serious consequences for the women and girls living in Sierra Leone.
Without access to sanitary pads, many women and girls use other products such as newspaper, kitchen sponges, or torn up cloth called ‘pieces’ to manage their periods. In Sierra Leone clean water is scarce and soap is expensive, and many girls find it embarrassing to wash their soiled ‘pieces’ in public washing areas, and instead leave them to dry in dirty, humid areas. This breeds bacteria and disease, which in turn spreads to the girls’ bodies. Using these ‘pieces’ can cause swelling, infection and disease – and on top of that, they simply do not work.
Girls have reported missing up to a week of school per month when they have their period, ashamed of their periods, anxious that their uniforms will be stained with blood.
We believe a period should never get in the way of a girl getting an education. And that’s why last year we expanded our LaunchPad project into schools. LaunchPad aims to educate women and girls about menstrual health and hygiene, while also making biodegradable, affordable sanitary pads available through a network of trained female entrepreneurs.
After running the program successfully across rural communities in Sierra Leone, we brought it into schools. We trained up 14 student LaunchPad Champions, as well as 5 extra community LaunchPad Champions.
Champions are trained in menstrual health and hygiene – so they can go on to educate the women and girls around them, as well as business skills and financial literacy, so they can earn a small profit by selling the pads.
A common bit of feedback our Champions pass on is that many of their first-time customers have never even seen a sanitary pad, let alone know how to use it or even why they should use it.
Admit it, if you’ve never seen a pad before they can be pretty damn confusing.
Because of this, much of the Champions’ job focuses on having important conversations about – you guessed it – periods, and educating women and girls about the best way to manage them.
Our LaunchPad champions are constantly coming up against cultural taboos and misinformation about menstruation – and the levels of understanding can be pretty basic. So they’ve worked together with our local Sierra Leone team to come up with some rather creative ways to put periods on the air (literally) and shine a special spotlight on the wonder of a simple sanitary pad.
Putting periods on the air
One way they’ve done this is through a series of radio discussions, as a way to raise awareness about menstrual health and hygiene, and give Champions and other members of the community an opportunity to get involved.
Think talk-back radio, but all about periods. Some of the topics discussed include:
- What is menstruation?
- What should we do before, during and after menstruation?
- How does the use of sanitary pads compare to other methods of managing your period (like using ‘pieces’).
The radio discussions invited guests along to join in, including school leaders, teachers, our trained school and community-based Launchpad Champions, and our local LaunchPad officer from the One Girl Sierra Leone office.
And like any good talk-back show – listeners were invited to call or text in and contribute to the conversation. One notable caller identified himself as a staff member from the Sierra Leone Ministry of Social Welfare, who suggested that One Girl could also engage men on how they can better support their wives to use sanitary pads. He also mentioned that he was impressed with LaunchPad’s work in raising awareness for menstrual health and hygiene!
Most of the other callers into the show were women and girls who wanted to see LaunchPad reach their communities too – because they wanted to get in on all the sanitary pad goodness! While we’re somewhat limited in how far we can reach due to the Champions being our only distributors of the pads, it’s definitely encouraging to know the demand is out there. Of course if it were possible, we’d love to train Champions across every district in Sierra Leone – because more Champions = more pads for women and girls!
Singing about sanitary pads
Another aspect we loved about these radio shows was the fact that some of our Champions decided to get creative about how they would spread the word on sanitary pads. A few of our champions wrote a jingle with a short story that centres on a woman explaining to another woman what a sanitary pad is and how to use it. Here’s a short excerpt:
Salamatu: I have never heard about sanitary pads, what are sanitary pads and what are they?
Kadiatu: you mean you have never used a pad?
S: I have always been using old cloth (pieces) whenever I experience my period ,this is what our ancestors have been using and it’s what we are using in this village.
K: Yes, I have also been using (cloth)pieces but sit down let me tell you what I experienced when I was using the pieces. I always experience scratches, and I never feel comfortable at all. But when I started using sanitary pads I feel good and I stopped experience scratches and my menstrual health improve more.
This sanitary pad jingle was recorded in three local languages: Temne, Krio and Mende – so our creative Champions will be able to reach as many women and girls as possible with their sanitary pad song!
During our trip to Sierra Leone late last year, we also saw the Champions using dramas and short plays to illustrate their points about periods and pads. As part of their training they also practiced picture code presentation, role plays, songs and dance, and storytelling techniques.
It was awesome to see them taking the knowledge they’d gained through their training and applying it in ways that would be relevant and accessible to their friends and community members.
Creative solutions – like the radio show and the jingle – prove that there’s no one way to create change. When you’re confronted by deeply rooted taboos and cultural understandings – sometimes getting a little creative and finding innovative ways of spreading the word can be just the thing to spark that change, which is an approach we can definitely get behind!
Today is International Menstrual Hygiene Day, so today of ALL days, we don’t mind making a song and dance about periods, menstrual hygiene, and sanitary pads. More than that, we’re celebrating the fact that some of the inspiring women and girls we work with are writing their own song and dance to educate and empower their peers.
Because it’s 2017, and quite frankly, a period should never stop ANYONE from reaching their full potential. It’s about bloody time.