For scores of women and girls from poor backgrounds in Cameroon, menstrual periods mean much, much more than pads, tampons and stomach cramps. Menses means limited access (or none at all) to adequate sanitary supplies. It means makeshift toilets (or none at all) and inadequate water facilities. It means shame, stigmas and taboos.
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 because of their periods. Women are also subjected to a range ofmenstrual taboos to the point that some cultures don’t allow menstruating women to cook or sleep in the same bed as their husbands. Others downgrade them to an outhouse for the duration of their cycle.
So what was it like for me?
My First Period
I was sleeping in bed with my sister, and in the morning I realized blood had stained the sheet and all my clothes. I didn't know what was happening. I search for wounds on my body and my sister’s but there was no wound. I was horrified and in that panic, I went to the bathroom which was outside and sat down, but it didn't stop. Then I went to the bush and sat there for hours and nothing changed. I was so ashamed and didn't know what to do because at this time I had just turned thirteen and never heard about menses from anyone. My mother never talked about it to us. We had a domestic science class in primary school but we were mostly taught how to cook, bake and do basic home economics.
Finally I left the bush where I was hiding and sneaked into my bedroom through the back door. The whole family had been searching for me at this time and wandering what must have happened to me. So desperate to stop the bleeding I cut a chuck of foam from our mattress to use it to hold the blood but it only held the blood for a short time. Then I tried cutting a piece of cloth to experiment with. It worked but would start leaking after an hour or two. What was this that had befallen me, I asked myself? Could it be that someone has placed a curse on me?I was angry and frustrated.
I managed with foam and cut pieces of clothes till the third day when I realized it stopped. All the while I didn't tell my mother. A few months later I got pregnant and my menses stopped completely. I was so happy that it stopped but didn’t know I was pregnant. I also didn't know anything about the process of pregnancy.
When I gave birth to my son at home, my mother gave me a piece of cloth to use. But when we got to the hospital, the midwives asked, madam where is your pad? And of course I didn’t know what a pad was because I had not seen one before. My mother handed over to them some rags she had in her bag, but they insisted that sanitary pads must be bought. This was expensive but my parents had no choice but to buy some pads for me to use the during postpartum period.
When I started school a year later, I had no access to sanitary pads. Cut pieces of clothes continued to be what I was using. Even in secondary school there was no discussion on menstrual hygiene management, as the matter continued to be a taboo. It was common practice to see menstruating girls tying black sweaters around their waist to hide stained uniforms. Myself and many other menstruating girls were mocked and laughed at by boys and even some girls who either didn’t have their periods yet or those from rich homes who could afford pads.
Unfortunately, these taboos that are rooted in assumptions that menstruating girls and women are somehow “polluted” marginalizes them and poses a serious setback to women’s education and professional development.
Menstruation in the Developed World
When I traveled to study in the United States, I realized that menstruation was not a taboo subject. I also noticed that all types and brands of sanitary products were available where I could choose whichever I wanted. I started to study more about my body and even got into nursing school because I was so curious to learn more about the woman’s body and why menstruation is treated like a taboo in my country.
In 2013 when I traveled to Zimbabwe for work, I discovered the same problem still continues. Girls are still being stigmatized and sometimes isolated because of their periods. They also don’t have access to pads nor the money to buy pads.
During my short stay in Cameroon in 2014, I decided to do an in-depth research project collecting data on the subject of menstruation and what rural girls and women were using during this time of the month. And of course it was the same story. Stigmas and taboos, lack of access to pads and lack of money were still the problem. School girls especially from poor backgrounds are those affected the most as they skip school five days a month during their periods. In addition to school girls, rural business women, farmers, girls with disabilities and girls from indigenous communities are among the most marginalized.
So how do I give back to girls and women the five days they lose out of their lives each month for not having what they need to manage their menstruation?
Triggered by the data I collected, plus my personal interaction with women and girls in the fields during our tour of schools in Cameroon, in addition to my personal experience growing up without sanitary pads, I was determined to solve this problem once and for all by finding ways to help change the prevailing mindset surrounding menstruation. I needed to come up with solutions designed to empower women in culturally relevant ways and to raise awareness of women’s reproductive health and open the conversation surrounding menstruation in general.
In 2015, I founded KujaPads Initiative, a project of my not for profit organization, False Labels Global Inc., to help girls to stay on track in schools by donating sanitary pads and to give empowerment workshops on menstrual hygiene managements in schools in rural areas around the North West region of Cameroon.
While touring schools in Cameroon I realized that even school officials found it difficult to use the word menses. In a conversation with one of the male principals before our workshop I was told they do not talk about it. A biology teacher of the same school told me that when he gets to such topics he treats them very lightly because it is a taboo to talk about menstruation.
So I got to work and created a curriculum on menstrual hygiene management that can be used in all primary and secondary schools and even in teacher training colleges in Cameroon. This is currently in progress and will be published soon. The curriculum will help young girls to understand menstruation—why it happens, how they can manage it and how to keep track of their cycle.
Every issue pertaining to sexuality is taboo in Cameroon and often girls and young women don’t get the needed support they need. All the changes in their bodies, all the questions and fears they have during that period are unanswered and many girls face their period with fear. In the long term, through our Women Leadership Program, we will train women to develop and implement national policies to address these unmet needs, such as convincing the ministry of education to consider hygiene and menstruation as part of the school curriculum.
But sustainability of this project was a burden in my heart. I thought to myself, how will the girls continue to get pads after the ones we donated during our tour of schools? Then I started researching as soon as I returned to the states. I wanted affordability, environmentally friendly and sustainable options.
After a few months of research and networking with friends here in New York, a friend sent me a link to a website that changed everything. In India, we found a newly invented machine that can do all we want using biodegradable cotton. Work is currently underway to start our first women led enterprise in Cameroon where low-cost environmentally friendly sanitary pads will be manufactured locally. Pads will be accessible and sold at low-cost so that girls will easily get them.
School absenteeism will greatly drop as girls will be able to stay in school during their monthly periods. Self-esteem and confidence will be boosted. Rural women will be equipped with the skills to producethehygienic and ecological pads on their own which will be a source of income from employment opportunities in this enterprise.
All women deserve a shame-free relationship to their periods regardless of socioeconomic circumstances.
While gearing up and working towards setting up the enterprise, I went ahead a launched One million pads for progress, a pad drive campaign that hopes to amass 1 million pads with six months to help poor school girls in Cameroon.
Plan of action.
We hope to build partnership with schools in Cameroon to work directly in classrooms and to train teachers.
Encourage both women and men across the nation to host Pad Parties to help raise awareness on the domestic and global challenges of menstruation. Donated sanitary products during these parties are given to school girls.
A simple and life saving habit is hand washing.We will be setting up Tippy Taps in all our program areas to ensure hygiene.
A soical system and or office will be set established in all program areas.Saniatry products will be available in these offices for girls to sign up and collect in case of emergencies.
I have been trained as an Ambassdor for Women's Health and will be passing it on to the women of Cameroon who will hold the light in candle in their various communities.
Call to action
Share your story
What was your first period like?
What you used?
Share taboos and stigmas and how you wish the problem can be solved.
A selection criteria will be put in place and top 50 of these stories from around the world will be shared and published here on world pulse and then into a journal.
Women participating in this contest will write about the various taboos they have encountered, and decide which ones they want to break. I believe that it’s hard to break myths as individuals, but with our collective voices echoing from all angles of the world, we can together succeed.
In preparation to embarking on this journey and fully armed with the right knowledge and tools, partnership with Days for Girls International is progress.
On March 18th 2016 I officially became an Ambassador of women’s fitness trained by the CEO of Days for Girls herself Celeste Mergens. (Certificate program)
I was recently nominated among top ten by BBC Africa unsung Hero women of Africa for being a crusader for menstrual hygiene.
I am well on my way to turning year of scars of shame into stars of empowerment.
And I end here with this quote:“It takes a lot of time, focus and energy to realize the enormity of being the ocean with your very own tide every month. However, by honoring the demands of bleeding, our blood gives something in return. The crazed bitch from irritation hell recedes. In her place arises a side of ourselves with whom we may not—at first—be comfortable. She is a vulnerable, highly perceptive genius who can ponder a given issue and take her world by storm. When we’re quiet and bleeding, we stumble upon the solutions to dilemmas that’ve been bugging us all month. Inspiration hits and moments of epiphany rumba ‘across de tundra of our senses. In this mode of existence one does not feel antipathy towards a bodily ritual so profoundly and routinely reinforces our cuntpower.”―Inga Muscio,Cunt: A Declaration of Independence