Talking about periods is changing lives

08 Mar 2019

You know what would be bloody great to talk about on International Women’s Day? Periods! And not just because a film about menstruation won an Oscar this year (check out ‘Period. End of sentence.’)!

In our new report, women and girls in Sierra Leone have described how things have improved, how attitudes have changed and how much more power they feel – all because the big red has come out from behind the veil of secrecy and shame. Chances are, the first time a girl in Sierra Leone gets her period, she won’t have any idea what’s happening. Periods are a taboo topic. The first rule of fight club etc. If she’s lucky enough to go to school, the days she has her period will be tough. Even if she knows sanitary pads exist, there are myths abound that they can cause infertility, they’re expensive, and they’re hard to get. She’ll have to manage her period with small scraps of fabric or old cloth called ‘pieces’ – which can be unreliable and unsanitary. Most schools have very few toilets and hand washing facilities and they are shared by male and female students. There’s very little (if any) privacy – and if she needs to wash blood from her hands or dress, people will know and she’ll probably get teased. And with her teacher almost certainly male, she won’t be able to ask for support.

It’s no wonder so many girls stay home from school rather than dealing with all this potential embarrassment and shame. Girls lose weeks of school a year simply because they don’t have a reliable way to manage their period! And then there are all the myths. Myths like once a girl gets her period: · it’s the end of her childhood; · she’s mature and ready to have sex or become a lover; · she’s already started having sex; or · she should drop out of school and get married. When you think that girls start menstruating as young as 10, you can imagine the impact these myths have on them! But what if there were women in the communities who could teach other women and girls the truth about menstruation and sexual health? Give them practical advice? AND provide easy access to disposable sanitary pads? What would happen if those women broke through the old taboos – openly discussing menstruation with the whole community, and challenging the myths that prevent so many women from reaching their full potential? Our LaunchPad program trains local ‘Champions’ to do all those things and it turns out the impact is huge!

And it’s not just us saying that. We asked an independent research team to find out if education about menstrual health and hygiene really does empower women and girls, give them greater control over their bodies and lives, and change community attitudes – and the results were a resounding YES!

“I was not confident to speak to my dad about menstruation, but now he is the one that buys pads for me, and also buys painkillers for my stomach ache.” – Group Member, Freetown. “Now I am free to wear any clothes I want to; I don’t have worries when going out too.” – Group member, Tonkolili district.

“As a man, it was very difficult for me to sit amongst women to talk about menstruation because in those days, they said it’s an insult for men to even mention the term menstruation – but things have changed now. Now, there is nothing hidden; what women know, men know as well.” – Male village elder, Tonkolili district.

The study also showed that having access to sanitary pads improves women’s physical health and restores their sense of dignity. “Before when we were using the pieces, it gives us wounds and rashes and infection, but now when we are using the pads, we are okay and free ... ever since when LaunchPad came, things have really changed.”?– Group member, Tonkolili district. “When we were using the pieces, it won’t even take us 2–3 hours, then we start having offensive smell or odour. It’s not like that anymore; now we feel clean and fresh.” – Group member, Tonkolili district. LaunchPad Champions are proud to be sharing life-changing information with the women and girls around them, and to be shifting community attitudes on issues that have so negatively impacted women’s lives.

Opportunities to improve

The research has also been incredibly valuable in highlighting unexpected consequences and areas where we could improve LaunchPad. For example, when LaunchPad Champions sell pads at a small profit, it provides them with much-needed income. In many communities, the Champions pool their income as a source of credit for emergencies or use it to invest it in collective farming projects. That’s fantastic – but we have to consider if it’s fair that Champions have access to free credit when others in their community don’t. Of course, the loans are always paid back. But is it too big a perk in communities where there is so little access to income, let alone credit? The other issue relates to safe disposal of the used pads. This is a big challenge. Waste is a global dilemma and there’s no question that replacing reusable pieces with disposable pads is contributing to that problem. Right now we’re exploring a couple of sustainable options including a reusable pad. There is more to do, so in the meantime we are including environmental information in the LaunchPad training. Periods can cause challenges for women – regardless of where in the world they live. But they are a fact of life. And it is simply not acceptable that — for some women and girls — periods stand in the way of their right to education. Or that they are the catalyst for early marriage. Or even a source of shame and ridicule. In communities where we have introduced LaunchPad we have seen how educating women and girls, and confronting the stigma of menstruation, has empowering them to take control of their own bodies and lives. You can sink your teeth into the full report here!

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