Marie-Claire Kuja’s awareness-raising campaign helps girls in rural Cameroon accept their periods with pride.
“A vast number of girls have no idea what their period is before they start.”
In September of last year, my team and I traveled throughout northwest Cameroon to raise awareness among students on menstrual hygiene management. At each stop along the way, laughter and joy filled the air as I distributed menstrual pad kits to the students as part of my One Million Pads for progress campaign.
As we went from village to village empowering girls in rural areas to stay on track in school and reach their full potential, we also asked them to spill the beans on their first periods. The shock and awe of one’s first period is not something to quickly forget, so there were many stories shared—some embarrassing, some disgraceful, and some just funny. Here is the account of one student named Kusona:
"When I first started menstruating, I was 11 and had never heard anything about it. I was in pain and I felt like crying. So that’s what I did—I cried. Soon, I realized the old piece of cloth I used as a pad was soaked. As I went out to wash my clothes, my father saw me washing my underpants and the cut pieces of my mother’s wrappa that I use during my menses. He asked me what it was, and I replied, 'Nothing.'I was ashamed and afraid, but he demanded an answer and picked up a cane to beat me.
"I dropped everything and ran to my mother. My mother told my father not to hit or scare me because it is normal for girls to experience this. My father said, 'I send her to school to learn, but instead she goes into the bush with boys to have sex and comes back home.'My mother tried to explain [menstruation to my father], but he did not believe her. He said that menstruation happens only after a girl has had sex with a man, and that I am not ready. Then, he beat me and asked me to tell him who did this to me.
"He called my grandmother and two other grandmothers in the village and demanded that a virginity test be done. Later that night, when everyone had gone to bed, the grandmothers arrived with an egg and ropes. They strapped me on my bed in order to insert the egg into my [vagina]. They found that I was intact and told my father, but my father still did not believe it."
Many girls, myself included, resonated with Kusona’s story. We also had parents who knew nothing about menstruation and thus did not teach us about it before our first periods.
Another student, Bola, told us, “Most of my memories center around feeling mortified that the boys may find out I’m on my period.I remember a dream in which I was wearing white pants to school, and unbeknown to me, I had a huge red stain on my behind. The boys’ laughter was humiliating, and I woke up feeling deep shame. Though this was a dream, the memory of it stayedwithme as if this was an actual event in my life.”
On my own path, it wasn’t until my early thirties that I discovered the sacredness of my Moon Blood and the depth, beauty, and insight that come with conscious flowing. Having sat in circles with women and girls around the world, I found that sharing our “first period” stories has a profound healing effect.Regardless of how different the details of our experiences are, women from around the globe resonate with each other’s stories of menstruation; the feelings in them are familiar to all of us.
However, persistent taboos around menstruation mean that limited information about it is available to young women. A vast number of girls have no idea what their period is before they start. These young girls end up using whatever they can lay their hands on as sanitary pads—old clothes, blankets, cotton wool or tissue, and even occasionally, grass or leaves. Parents are either unwilling or unable to come up withmoneyfor sanitary pads or even discuss the topic of menstruation with their children.
Many girls in our program confessed to turning to transactional sex with men in order to obtain money for pads. When we surveyed 13-year-old girls in most of the schools in our program, one in ten told us that they had engaged in sex in order to get money to buy pads. These girls have no money and no power. This was their only option.
It has only been in the last few years that researchers have finally started delving into the subject of menstruation, and the impact it has on the lives of young girls and women in low-income countries.That sense of shame, the sense of being guilty of something so secret that no one will even talk about it, is then compounded by cultural prejudices and beliefs around menstruation which vary from country to country and region to region.
In some cultures in the world, women are told that eating certain foods during their period will make them smell bad; in others, women are sent away from the home during their periods or not allowed to bathe; while in still others, menstruating women are not permitted toenterplaces of worship.
The students in our program also told us that schools in particular can be full of pitfalls for girls during menstruation as there often areno adequate bathroom facilities—many have shared latrines, no locks on the doors, and norunningwater. According to our own findings, some teachers are unsympathetic about these challenges and their teaching methods may compound the problem.
The shame, inconvenience, taboo, stigma, myths, and embarrassment usually associated with menstruation—that often cause girls in rural areas to lag behind in their school work and sometimes even drop out of school—will soon be a thing of the past in some parts of Cameroon.
Even though change on this issue is very difficult and happens slowly, my crew and I—and all those involved in creating solutions on menstrual hygiene and reproductive health in Africa and around the world—are now shaking this subject out of the shadows. We are determined that things must change.Through training sessions where girls can ask questions and talk about sexual experiences as well as menstruation in a safe environment, we are witnessing glimpses of change. Girls in our program are beginning to accept menstruation joyfully, completely, and with pride.
And once they are equipped with their new pad kits, they are showing them off, owning them, and modeling them. How awesome.
Though it has not been easy running an organization using only my personalfinances, I am determined to change the paradigm and rewrite the stories of so many poor girls in my community. With the great help and partnership of Days for Girls International, New York; United Methodist Women, New York; The Advice Project, New York; Girls Prep, New York; AliceDealMiddle School, Washington, DC; Elaine France; and Sakhi Foundation, India—plus many other supporters and well-wishers around the world, we have collected more than 14,000individually wrapped pads since the beginning of my campaign last spring.
Girls like Kusona, who uses her mother’s old clothes as pads, will now have something clean to use instead. Girls will no long involve themselves in transactional sex in exchange for money to buy pads but will be able to focus on their schoolwork instead.
My own first period was awkward, embarrassing, and horrifying, but from that experience I’ve gone on to create opportunities for girls, and through them entire communities.
This is the kind of world I want to leave behind—one where no woman or girl is shamed or stigmatized because of menstruation; where all girls stay on track in school during their monthly period; and where girls escape the shadows of victimhood and claim their places as the future leaders they are.
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.
How to Get Involved
Marie-Claire invites you to learn more about her current projects supporting girls in rural Cameroon. Watch her videos here.