Girls after an empowerment workshop on menstrual hygiene. Photo courtesy of Marie-Claire Kuja.

CAMEROON: Tired of the Silence and Making Our Own Noise

Marie-Claire Kuja is determined to help girls in her homeland embrace menstruation without shame and fear.

I was thirteen, and I had never heard about menstruation.

Kujamac12 | USA

I woke in the morning to find bloodstains on my sheets and clothes.  Horrified and panicked, I searched my body and the body of my sister, who lay sleeping next to me. I was confused—there were no wounds to be found.

I leapt out of my bed and made my way to the bathroom outside. When the blood flow didn’t stop, I fled to the bush and sat there for hours. What had befallen me? I asked myself. Could it be that someone had placed a curse on me?

I was angry and frustrated. But more than that, I was terrified and ashamed. I was thirteen, and I had never heard about menstruation. My mother never talked about it. No one at primary school had mentioned it. In Cameroon, the topic of menses is taboo.

When I finally left my hiding place in the bush, I snuck back into my bedroom through the back door. My whole family had been searching for me. Still, I didn’t tell them the reason I had fled. Instead, desperate to stop the bleeding, I cut a chunk of foam from our mattress to catch the blood. When it only held for a short time, I experimented with cloth. It worked better, but I only had an hour or two before it began to leak. I managed with foam and cut pieces of clothes for three days. Then, I realized the blood flow had stopped.

This went on for a few days each month. But then, a few months later, my menses stopped completely. I was so happy! I didn’t know that the bleeding stopped because I had become pregnant. I knew nothing about reproductive health and the process of pregnancy was a complete mystery.

When I gave birth to my son at home, my mother gave me a piece of cloth to use for the resulting blood flow. But when we got to the hospital, the midwives asked, “Madam, where is your pad?” Of course I didn’t know what a pad was; I had never seen one before.

My mother handed the midwives the rags she had in her bag, but they insisted that we must buy expensive sanitary pads. My parents had no choice but to spend money we did not have on pads for me to help with postpartum bleeding.

When I started secondary school a year later, I had no access to the sanitary pads I had used following the birth of my son. I continued to use cut pieces of cloth.

I was surprised to learn that even in secondary school, there was no discussion of menstrual hygiene management. It was common to see menstruating girls tie black sweaters around their waists to hide stained uniforms. The boys, and even some girls who had not yet started their periods or those from rich homes who could afford pads, laughed and mocked us.

In many parts of the world, menstruation means more than pads, tampons, and cramps. Menses means limited (or no access) to adequate sanitary supplies. It means makeshift toilets (or no toilets at all), and inadequate water facilities. It means shame, secrecy, and stigma.

All these factors combine to isolate girls and women and prevent them from going to school and work, thereby causing women and girls to lose an average of five days a month from school and work due to menstruation.

In some cultures, menstruating women are not allowed to cook or sleep in the same bed as their husbands. Sometimes, women are downgraded to an outhouse for the duration of their cycle.

Unfortunately, this refusal to discuss menstruation poses serious setbacks to girls’ education. But this isn’t an issue that just affects adolescent girls. Later in life, women in all sectors—from business to farming—find themselves unable to work due to poor access to sanitary products.

It wasn’t until I made my way to the US that I learned that menstruation does not have to be taboo and stigmatized. I marveled at the types of sanitary products available to women in the developed world. I learned so much about my body simply because I could talk to other women about things I could never utter in Cameroon.

On a return trip to Cameroon in 2014, I decided to take the knowledge I had gained in my time abroad and help those in my homeland. My personal experience growing up without sanitary pads made me determined to come up with solutions.

In 2015, I founded the KujaPads initiative. We started out by donating sanitary products to girls and giving empowerment workshops on menstrual hygiene management to schools in rural Cameroon. Our curriculum helps young girls understand menstruation: why it happens, how they can manage it without missing school, and how to keep track of their cycles.

Our next step is implementing national policies to make sure that curriculum like this is available to all girls across Cameroon. It is important that we educate girls about menstruation so that they do not have to face their periods with fear.

Even as I helped girls learn about their bodies, there remained a burden on my heart. How could we provide enough sanitary pads to enough girls? What would happen after the ones we donated were gone? I wanted affordable, environmentally friendly and sustainable options for my community.

After a few months of research and networking in the US, a friend sent me a link that changed everything. In India, we found a newly invented machine to create pads using biodegradable cotton. Work is currently underway to start our first women-led enterprise in Cameroon where affordable, environmentally friendly sanitary pads will be manufactured locally. Pads will be accessible and sold at low-cost so that girls can easily get them.

I have also launched a project called One Million Pads for Progress, a pad drive campaign that hopes to amass 1 million pads to distribute to poor school girls in Cameroon.   

I know that through these initiatives, school absenteeism will greatly drop. Self-esteem and confidence will be boosted. Rural women will be equipped with the skills to produce hygienic and ecological pads on their own, which will be a source of income and economic empowerment.

I am determined to give women and girls back the five days each month they lose out due to menses, because all women deserve a shame-free relationship to their periods. 


DIVE DEEPER 

You can help support Marie-Claire Kuja's One Million Pads for Progress project! Learn more in the Resource Exchange.

Topic Girls Health
Comment on this Editorial

Comments

Marie-Claire, your vision and your work is absolutely incredible! Thank you for being such a powerful force for change so that girls and women around the world can have the confidence in themselves and their bodies that they deserve.

In solidarity,

Chelsea

Dear Chelsea,

I thank you so much for your kind words.I am so powered by that.It is an absolute honor and pleasure to serve humanity especially women and girls.

I am so humbled by your words.

Thanks a lot Chelsea and be blessed.

Your truly,

kuja

kujamac

This is a wonderful piece. I admire the spirit of humanitarian service in you and the zeal in reaching out to the disadvantaged girls and women. Its a Godly one and heaven shall reward you for that project.

Nneamaka

Dear NNEAMAKA RITALI...

Thank you so much.I am blessed and powered by your kind and encouraging words.You got it right.This is Godly as He is that one that gives the strength and means.

May He bless you for empowering me today.

Stay blessed.

Kuja

kujamac

Great initiative Kuja. Really this has been and still remains one of the top health hazard to girls and women in the developing countries. I have always wondered about this even in the Universities and the Professionals schools in the cities where there is always no water and poor toilets and sanitations. I have seen girls absence from classes despite the fact they could afford their pads because there is no water in the various toilets in their institutions. 

So maybe also while empowering and sensitizing the girls, there is the great need to raise awareness about the public sanitation in the developing world and particularly in higher learning institutions

Gwei Mainsah Gilbert freelances Communication mainsahgilberts@gmail.com

Greetings Gilbert. Thank you so kindly for adding your words to this encouraging throng of voices. That's so kind.

Providing a means for women and girls to have access to affordable sanitary napkins is just one of the things my team and I are working on.

I do agree with you that hygiene and sanitation in Cameroon in general is appalling. This is not limited to schools only but other sectors.

I was in Cameroon last year and visited a university. While there I needed to use the lady's room so bad.when I asked where it was,I was directed to a place in the back. When I got in,I immediately jumped out and ran to the car. I was in shock and very disappointed to see that a whole university had such a disgusting toilet. Then I asked myself so many questions all centered around girls and how they manage their periods I such an environment. We're trying to work on something and when its ripe you will be notified. Thank you sir and stay blessed.

World Pulse community Champion Sub-Sahara Africa Group. Kuja.

kujamac

Hello Ada .

Thank you so very much for very empowering words.Means the world.

Do stay blessed as well and keep impacting.

In gratitude & love. Kuja.

kujamac

Marie Claire that is a good initiative for our country and for our young girls, you really thought it wise of our girls. This gesture should not limited to urban settlements but you should think of the young girls in interiors. Talking to our young girls about menses should not be a taboo but a normal situation in.

i am willing and ready to support you.

Dear Mr.Okuman

First of all your user name is funny. Okuman.. You must be from Oku I guess?

O well thank you for sharing an opinion.That's so appreciated. Am glad however to let you know that the main target group for the project are girls in rural areas. They're the ones mostly affected due to the lack of access to sanitary napkins and other hygienic products. Thank you also for the offer to help. Stay blesses Mr.Okuman. Yours truly Kuja

kujamac

Hi Marie Claire,

I can see a lady with a Vision and on a Mission to achieve. Well done! keep it going. We must speak out we must educate and must share. I bet your account resonates with most girls and women especially in developing countries but what makes the difference is that you are on a platform that hundreds if not thousands will hear you.

Apart from the sustainable pads for all i think most importantly is the hygiene and sanitation conditions which eventually  becomes a health risk that you are  addressing as well. 

Keep going girl!

Cheers

Stelz

Hello Stelz. Thank you. I am very humbled by your encouraging and uplifting words. You're so kind.

And I do agree with you 100%. Water and sanitation is a big problem is Cameroon.My team and I are working on a good strategy for this which will include the provision of water, good toilets and then the pads.All these goes together.

Thanks again dear sis. Yours truly Kuja

kujamac

Dear Marie-Claire,

It was great to read your story and hear how much you want to educate so many girls about their bodies so they do not go through the same feelings of fear that you did. I wish you continued success in all of your endeavors.  

Kristina

Hello Kristina. Thanks for joining the encouraging throng of voices here cheering me on.Thank you for your kind wishes. Am so blessed by your kindness.

Yours truly, Kuja

kujamac

Hello Marie-Claire!

What an uplifting story you have shared with the World Pulse community!! My heart ached for the young 13 year old girl you were who had no knowledge, only fear and shame. You have tackled an important taboo subject in your country and I applaud the work you have done and continue to do. I wish you success with the "One Million Pads for Progress" campaign.

Just imagine the young girls of today in Cameroon having access to hygienic, ecologically sound products as well as improved sanitation. And receiving education early on about the natural process of menstruation! That it is not something to be ashamed or embarrassed of, but rather a milestone in a young woman's life that should be celebrated.

In love and peace,

Terry Mullins

 

Hello Terry. I believe everything happens for a reason. Who ever knew or could ever imagine that my 13 year old teenage mom self will turn out to be a change maker? What I do today gives me a clearly reason why I had such a difficult childhood. Am here and all determined to change things for women and girls.

Thank you also for your wishes for One Million Pads. The campaign is going on well and schools are the city are organizing pad drives here and there. Thank you do much. Stay blessed. Kuja

kujamac