Remember the first time you got your period (or if you are male or never have (to all our young readers out there) – remember the first time you found out what it was all about)?. For some of us who had older sisters or prepared parents or quality sexual education programs in school, it was no big deal, but for others it could be a mildly terrifying experience. Now imagine that same day but you live in a country where women’s menstrual cycles are not a topic of discussion and sex ed is certainly not a school subject. In Tanzania menstruation is kept in the closet (or hidden under your mattress – where some women conceal used, make-shift pads to avoid humiliation). As a result, girls and women are greatly disadvantaged in a society where they are already starting on the back foot due to a bodily function that is completely natural!
In rural Tanzania many women create make-shift pads using unsanitary old cloths, corn husks and cobs, or dirt as protection during menstruation. This can lead to serious infections and disease that can later result in complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Understandably this limits girls’ ability to attend school where bathrooms are scarce. One Tanzanian school reported having 285 students and no toilets for 5 years and a pretty pathetic reason why not – which this TZ newspaper reported (scroll down to the second article). Even if there are toilets, there is often no running water (46% of schools in fact), 63% of school toilets have no place to dispose sanitary pads, 52% of toilets do not have doors, and only 9% of school toilets are “clean”.* This Seed Change employee has frequented many school toilets (we have many of our farmer training sessions at village schools) and these stats all hold true; and that you cannot purchase tampons in Kigoma and only two shops carry a few – literally 4 or 5 packages – of pads. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, said “There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls,” so how can we expect great progress in development if this monthly occurrence continues to hold girls back?
All the same goes for women who work. Try keeping a job if once a month you are too embarrassed to turn up to your place of employment or need to leave work early – how can women keep themselves independent and financial self-sufficient?
Cultural taboos against menstruation exacerbate gender inequalities and we all know gender inequality should be a thing of the past, even though its not yet. At Seed Change we only do a small bit to address this issue. We pump water to the toilets of the school we are located near, which I hope helps keep some girls in class all through the month. While this is not an area our organisation works in, lots of great organisations do. Ingrained gender inequality and women being confined to their homes once a month are twin evils that hold back women and entire communities. Perhaps all the world needs are more clean toilets and pads for everyone.