In her book, Blood, Bread, and Roses, Judy Grahn observes “Menstrual blood is the only source of blood that is not traumatically induced. Yet in modern society, this is the most hidden blood, the one so rarely spoken of and rarely seen, except privately by women.’’
While the transition to womanhood should be a celebrated phase by the majority of girls, it can be a daunting challenge especially when they have no access to the much-needed essentials such as dignity kits and information.
Indeed, the changes that happen to a girl during this period can be overwhelming if not given the right support. It’s even worse in communities where menstruation is seen as a very sensitive topic and not many people are willing to talk about it with their girls. Worse still, there are communities where menstruating girls are sent away from home because they are considered unclean hence should not interact with the rest of the family.
Sarah Bajilio Laku, a 22-year-old from Juba wishes her mother was present to help her navigate this challenging phase of life.
She grew up in a normal family set up with both parents and never lacked the basic needs of life. Unfortunately, after the death of her father, she started experiencing hurdles in life. Her mother continued to support the family, albeit with difficulties. Sarah did not get to enjoy the presence of her mother for long following her death in 2021 leaving her and five siblings all by themselves.
“In absence of my mother, life was hard. I had just started receiving my periods and was not sure of the phase I was getting into since our community undermines girls. But unlike my agemates, I was lucky I had a mentor who walked me through that new phase of my life,’’ said Sarah.
Just like in most disadvantaged families, financial constraints make it impossible for girls to acquire sanitary towels thus leading to many of them dropping out of school, living with low self-esteem, and others ending up in early childhood marriages. Others resort to commercial sex work for income to buy sanitary towels.
“Accessing sanitary towels was a challenge since I did not have any source of income and the pads are expensive. Growing up in a large family, we would buy one and share it with my sisters. There are instances I used cotton wool and other materials to contain the situation. The use of these materials was very tedious since I had to be very cautious not to soil myself,’’ she said.
Sarah’s revelation is one of the many stories of girls facing challenges in accessing sanitary pads. Research by The World Bank shows that at least 500 million women and girls globally lack adequate facilities for menstrual hygiene management. The challenge menstruating girls and women face is often less tangible than simply the availability of infrastructure and is rooted in social norms and beliefs. In many cultures, menstruating women are considered impure and are systematically excluded from participating in everyday activities, such as education, employment, and cultural and religious practices. Moreover, the taboos and stigmas attached to menstruation
lead to an overall culture of silence around the topic, resulting in limited information on menstruation and menstrual hygiene.
In pursuit of creating a lasting health change, Amref has brought smiles to many girls like Sarah. Through the reusable pads project, girls are taught about menstrual hygiene management and how to make reusable pads using locally available materials.
Sarah is one of the beneficiaries of the reusable pads project by Amref in Juba. Having been introduced to Amref by her friend Asha, she has undergone training and is able to make reusable pads.
“The Amref project has equipped me with the necessary skills to make alternative pads. The reusable sanitary pads are just as healthy and safe as disposable ones and women need not have any concerns in this regard, in terms of hygiene and infections,” remarks Sarah.
The project funded by UNFPA aims to enlighten school-going girls on menstruation and the most recommended practices on menstrual hygiene management as well as increasing dependence on reusable products among young girls and women in the community. By end of 2021, Amref had trained 75 girls in Juba and seeks to train more in the coming years.
Sarah, a member of the girl guide association in Juba has just completed her high school education and aspires to be a journalist. She said, “I have always wanted to study journalism ever since I was 17 years old. My wish would be to study it here in Juba, unfortunately, no colleges are offering the course here. I also do not have funds to support my education.”
By Annette Kote, Amref Health Africa.