My First Period: Turning scars to stars

Marie-Claire Kuja
Posted June 1, 2016 from United States
During our tour of schools handing pads to girls.
More on our your of schools as we give advice to students on what to use. (1/1)

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 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.

Meanwhile, here in New York I recently launched One Million Pads for Progress,a pad drive campaign with the hope of amassing 1 million pads to sustain the project will preparing to launch the industry.

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.

My First Period

Comments 7

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mayele
Jun 02, 2016
Jun 02, 2016

Hi Kujamac12

Pads will be accessible and sold at low-cost so that girls can easily get them.This is a touching statement in your story .

Keep the fire burning,i am inspired and impressed by you.

Warm Regards.

Myriam

Marie-Claire Kuja
Jun 02, 2016
Jun 02, 2016

Dear Myriam.

Thank you so much. Yes that's the whole idea,to make something that will be environmentally friendly and affordable to girls.

While I walk that path,encouraging words like yours really matters.

Thank you for stopping by.

Yours truly Kuja.

Sandy KOUO ISEDU
Jun 03, 2016
Jun 03, 2016

Chère Kujamak12

Ton récit montre que les mamans en Afrique subsaharienne limitent leur éducation chez la fille. Les filles ne devraient pas être surprises par leurs menstrues, de nos jours les enfants sont très précoces car la puberté s'obtient vers les 12 ans donc à 9 et 10 ans une fille peut déjà avoir ses règles. Parler de celà, non nos mamans croient que c'est envoyer les enfants faire n'importe quoi,  au contraire

Marie-Claire Kuja
Jun 05, 2016
Jun 05, 2016

Chere Sandy,

Merci beaucoup. Haha I wish I could continue with French.

You're so appreciated for stopping by and for being so encouraging to. Thank you immensely Sandy. Kuja

Kika Katchunga
Jun 03, 2016
Jun 03, 2016

It's great, hear these project in Africa is the true subject of menstruation is considered taboo, I think the african parents will leave that they be clear with the girls is to say all the truths about menstruation. ;thank you for sharing and good luck in your lute for chagement

Marie-Claire Kuja
Jun 05, 2016
Jun 05, 2016

Dear Kika. Well done. You write very good English that I can write French. Bravo.

Thank you so much. Yes parents must start to tell their children right from when they start to reach puberty about the changes they will see taking place in their bodies. Reason for the #EndMenstrualTaboo campaign. This will involve parents and and their children. They need to start a conversation around menstruation. Merci beaucoup chere. Kuja

Avera
Jul 21, 2016
Jul 21, 2016

Hahahaha!!!  Your story is a reflection of what still  happens in  many  villages and even cities in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, depending on the finances of the family.

The project is going to help many women and girls take proper care of themselves during their feminine days.

 I can only say, don't relent your efforts and keep up the good work,

Avera