Photo of Blandine Umuziranenge © Cosmos Magazine

RWANDA: Our Periods Should Be a Source of Pride and Power

As a storyteller for positive change, Blandine Umuziranenge is working to end the shame around menstruation that she experienced as a teenager. 

I didn’t know how to talk about my need for sanitary pads or how to use them.

For two years after my first period, I did not ask for sanitary pads by name. I would call them hygiene products, school materials, or even clothes—trying to find a better name for my parents’ ears so they would help me buy what I needed.

The day of my first period, I was afraid to ask my mother what happened to me. I thought that I sat on a tree and maybe its branches injured me. The second day, I realized that that blood was not normal and I had to discover how to stop it or how to hide it by myself.

My clothes became a mess. I cut some of my clothes into pieces to try to stop the blood. I would change these scraps every 30 minutes and I had to hang the pieces of my clothes outside to dry after washing them, which caused me embarrassment. I didn’t know how to talk about my need for sanitary pads or how to use them.

Despite my burden of shame, I went to a neighborhood friend who was the same age as I was and asked her if she ever experienced what I was feeling and seeing in my body. She told me how she too experienced shame when she had to use rags and mattress stuffing to manage her periods. This was before she knew about sanitary pads, which she explained to me and taught me how to use.

Even with this new knowledge, I continued to face challenges due to the cost and the stigma of buying sanitary pads. I am not alone. According to Sustainable Health Enterprises, 18% of women and girls in Rwanda miss work or school because they can’t afford to buy menstrual pads. This amounts to a potential GDP loss of $215 per woman every year in our country.

Social stigma and cultural taboos about menstruation contribute to girls missing work and school. In my community, when you go to buy a pad it is common for the seller to wrap it in multiple envelopes or even cover it with newsletters and pack it as if it is shameful to carry it.

That shame reflected from the seller in the boutique is the same shame my father reflected on me when I started asking him for money to buy sanitary pads every month. I had to start asking for that money one week ahead to bear with the fear that his responses caused in me. One morning, I was standing on the stairs where my father would pass every day for work. I asked him for money again and I will never forget his reply: “Stop those things that make you ask me for 700 francs every month!”

This was the moment I realized I would not get support from the one I thought was in charge of me. I had to learn what to ask and to whom to ask it to. I had to take pads on credit from my neighbor’s boutique or take debt from my friends and pay them back from holiday jobs. Luckily, with this help I didn’t miss any class because of my periods.

But I saw my colleagues missing class some days because they didn’t have hygiene products, or they missed class because they were working for money to buy pads. I stopped asking “why me?” about my situation and started asking “how me?” How could I help all Rwandan girls out there in the same situation or even worse situations than mine?

I have been humbled to get help from all those kind people around me and I swore I would give back. I thought about the shame surrounding a natural part of becoming a woman; the shame that was causing us to wish not to be girls anymore; the shame that made us forget about the gift of reproduction we have been given.

I created Cosmos Multimedia Center, a media house, magazine, and healthcare app. We create an environment where girls can meet in a safe space and read our magazine and books that educate and explain about hygiene products they need and how to use them. They read true stories about other young women’s experiences in handling their menstrual cycles; they share their own challenges and experiences and plan together what they can do to turn their periods into something that can exist without shame.

We also plan to start an incubator for young women and girls to not only discuss their challenges about menstruation, but also learn how to make pads for themselves and other school girls. As girls break the silence about menstruation and benefit financially from making and selling pads, they will come to see their periods as a source of pride and power.

If we stop raising our voices about this issue, the number of school dropouts will increase. Remembering my own menstruation challenges, I know I have to work hard to protect other girls from the same discouraging experiences I had. We are equipping parents with information to provide an affectionate and psychologically supportive environment to their children.

Through Cosmos publications and activities, girls learn how to handle their menstrual cycles each month. Our goal is to see all school-aged girls learning every day—in Rwanda and throughout Africa—without having to worry about their monthly cycle at school. I have been a child of the community; now it’s my turn to give back to the community.


STORY AWARDS

This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.

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Comments

Dear Kadablah,

A very lovely story and inspiring especially by the actions you took and continue to do to enable other girls manage menstruation. It sounds like a none issue for men sometimes when they do not understand the implications and the traumatic effect it can have to a growing girl. It is no wonder that some girls end up getting deceived by sugar daddies in their pursuit for this kind of money. I admire your courage in handling your situation, and now your commitment to help others. Keep on the good work!

LVB

Dearest Blandine, you have written a very articulate article and wish to congratulate you on such a needed project. your writing inspired me to check on the status of women in the usa for affording moontime hygiene products, which are directly related to vagina's and women. how is it i am always surprized at the extreme misogyny in the world. both new zealand and usa pop up with women fighting for women's hygeine products for those who cannot afford them. i share the following sites with you, just in case you didn't see them, for potential new ideas for you. blessings on your path,

here is the usa:

https://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/helping-women-and-girls-per...

and new zealand:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=117...

Rahmana Karuna, Dance leader for DancesofUniversalPeace, Nurse Practitioner Midwife evolved to Spiritual Midwife, Arvigo Therapy, Walking the Sufi path of Hazrat Inayat Kahn lineage, a path of the heart

Dear Blandine,

Your story resonates with that of many young girls around the globe.Our menses should not be taboo but apart of what comprises our beauty as women.Demistify the taboo. And thanks for doing amazing job helping the young girls out.

Much love

Immah

Dear Kadablah, 

Your story is very inspirational. Many girls are still dropping out of school because they can't afford hygiene products. Thank you for sharing. Please send the link for your app so we can share with girls in our community.  

Stay blessed 

Mrs. Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi Head of Legal and Advocacy Centre for Batwa Minorities a.kiddu@gmail.com cfmlegal@gmail.com Skype: mrs_muhanguzi

You and others like you are bringing to the forefront the challenges women face in obtaining sanitary towels. The cost as you rightly pointed out is high. Keep up the great work.

Ngozi Oguguah

Thank you for sharing it Blandine, your story inspires me a lot, because that's something I plan to do too, to create a center where the girls will share their own challenges and experiences and plan together what they can do for transformation Of their periods into something that can exist without shame In my country DR.CONGO many girls also suffers by this problem of lack of sanitary napkins during their period, I also had an opportunity to learn how to make a few Sanitary napkins and it helped me a lot and I hope it helps girls in my country too. I wish you good luck in your projects and continue to share.Hello

sylvie

 Dear Blandine!

your experience in childhood still represent the experiences of young girls in some parts of our country too.  Girls are still unaware of sanitary pads or some might not afford that mere object . This unavailability creates a huge problem here too..girls have ill effects on health too and missed school days  create lagging on studies. 

What u have done is really inspiring. We also need similar activism in our country.

Thank you for sharing your very empowering story, Blandine! Women and girls should never have to feel ashamed or burdened for a natural phenomenon. You are playing such an important and influential role in educating women and girls on the topic of feminine hygiene, which is overlooked in several areas of the world. I look forward to hearing more about your projects in the near future.

Blandine, every single girl around the globe has a period, period. Unless nature doesn't allow them to (no shame implied). Here in the U.S., open discussion about menstruation happened just one generation ago. Before then, most women did not tell their stories for fear of shame. How can something that we cannot control be fearful or shameful. Open minds and hearts to understanding and practical truths. Thank you for taking the steps to do this in your community.

Dear Kadablah,

You are a heroine! I stand with you from here and send you love. May your light never grow dim as you bring smiles of relieve to those young girls.

Blessings.

Keep talking! Your voice is your power!

Thank you for sharing your story - I have always wondered why our biology, which is linked to our reproduction, is so stigmatized.

I love that you have been so innovative with the solutions you have created to solve a problem that so many see as so personal. I love that you are using various media and technology to improve girls' lives and experiences with their body and health.

Dear Kadablah,

Thank you for sharing your story, indeed that same experience and practices are also here in my country. Still women/ girls are badly treated during the period, when they need the support and care most. 

Your initiation is really very inspiring, Congratulations... Keep your good work.

love and regards,

anjana