To Women, With Love

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Happy International Women’s Day! To mark this most important of days, we want to say a heartfelt THANK YOU to the many women who work with us to realize a world in which every girl is free to live to her fullest potential, in harmony with Mother Nature.

Thank you to the teachers, mentors, donors, partners and friends who all play a role in the world we are creating.

Thank you to every woman and girl out there who is raising her voice, being her brave self, fighting the good fight, and being a part of a relentless movement for equality.

To say thank you, we want to share a few favourite photos from our project in Cameroon to celebrate women everywhere. And to all the women out there today – keep fighting and speaking out and singing and marching.

A teacher hands out reusable pads to students in Wabane District in Cameroon.

A teacher hands out reusable pads to students in Wabane District in Cameroon.

A teacher sorts through Afripads from Lunapads and underwear to make sure every girl gets the right supplies for her.

A teacher sorts through Afripads from Lunapads and underwear to make sure every girl gets the right supplies for her.

A young woman helps register a younger student for our program, to make sure we understand her unique needs for knowledge and reusable menstrual supplies.

A young woman helps register a younger student for our program, to make sure we understand her unique needs for knowledge and reusable menstrual supplies.

A group of teachers in Wabane District gather with our Executive Director Irene Whittaker-Cumming after a successful workshop. These women are the rock of their schools and communities.

A group of teachers in Wabane District gather with our Executive Director Irene Whittaker-Cumming after a successful workshop. These women are the rock of their schools and communities.

A young woman participant in our program shows off her brand new Femmecup. Every girl has the choice between reusable pads or a cup, depending on what works for her.

A young woman participant in our program shows off her brand new Femmecup. Every girl has the choice between reusable pads or a cup, depending on what works for her.

A group of smiling young women show off their menstrual cups after a fun workshop together. Often we find that younger girls prefer reusable pads, while adolescent girls and women often decide on menstrual cups. But, of course, the decision is personal and varies from person to person.

A group of smiling young women show off their menstrual cups after a fun workshop together. Often we find that younger girls prefer reusable pads, while adolescent girls and women often decide on menstrual cups. But, of course, the decision is personal and varies from person to person.

This teacher takes care of her baby and teaches a large class of girls about their health and bodies. What a force.

This teacher takes care of her baby and teaches a large class of girls about their health and bodies. What a force.

Stella has been a pivotal part of our girls program in Cameroon. She taught workshops, cooked delicious meals, and helped broaden our program to rural women in the community.

Stella has been a pivotal part of our girls program in Cameroon. She taught workshops, cooked delicious meals, and helped broaden our program to rural women in the community.

This pregnant woman shares her ideas and insights with other teachers as part of a women's focus group we hosted in Wabane District.

This pregnant woman shares her ideas and insights with other teachers as part of a women’s focus group we hosted in Wabane District.

Stella takes a much deserved break from her work and joins the conversation. She is such an inspiration, and works tirelessly for her community and family. Like many women, she takes on many roles - including being a strong role model.

Stella takes a much deserved break from her work and joins the conversation. She is such an inspiration, and works tirelessly for her community and family. Like many women, she takes on many roles – including being a strong role model.

These teachers pause from a conversation filled with insight-sharing, laughter and ideas to take a photo. The conversation could have lasted for hours more, it was so rich and full.

These teachers pause from a conversation filled with insight-sharing, laughter and ideas to take a photo. The conversation could have lasted for hours more, it was so rich and full.

Laughter was a mainstay of the conversation with these intelligent teachers. In between offering insights about the girls in their community and the needs of girls and women, we found plenty of time laugh.

Laughter was a mainstay of the conversation with these intelligent teachers. In between offering insights about the girls in their community and the needs of girls and women, we found plenty of time laugh.

A teacher takes a solitary moment after a powerful conversation with other women leaders in her community.

A teacher takes a solitary moment after a powerful conversation with other women leaders in her community.

A teacher shows a young girl how to use reusable menstrual supplies. Girls in our workshop represented a wide range of ages, from 10 right up to 20 years old. Different groups and individuals have different needs, and so the workshop changes to adapt to their life stage and circumstances.

A teacher shows a young girl how to use reusable menstrual supplies. Girls in our workshop represented a wide range of ages, from 10 right up to 20 years old. Different groups and individuals have different needs, and so the workshop changes to adapt to their life stage and circumstances.

 

Springing Up: Women and Girls Are Both Victims and Vanquishers of Climate Change

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Earth DayEarth Day matters to every individual – every man, woman, child, antelope, tiger and earthworm. As an interconnected web with intricate correlations and dependencies, we all rely on a happy climate that doesn’t sway too far from the one that we evolved into. The difference of a couple of degrees can be catastrophic in ways that no one fully understands, because of the beautiful and ornate complexities of the planet that is our lush and abundant home.


Earth Day is particularly important to girls and women. In human societies around the globe, women and girls are uniquely affected by climate change and its effects. Climate change deepens instead of bridges inequities, and as the gender that is firmly embedded below the other in societal structures, the marginalized woman will see deepening hardship. Scratch that. She already is seeing deepening hardship.


From food shortages to water scarcity to precarious health to increased susceptibility in the wake of natural disasters, women and girls are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Research has shown that women farmers account for 45 to 80 per cent of all food production in developing countries, and when climate change hits, traditional foods that women cultivate become unpredictable and scarce. Food prices rise and poor people – of which women are disproportionately represented – see a decline in health. This is exacerbated by the exclusion of women from decision-making that is so essential: to their land, their livelihoods, their lives.


Women and girls are also largely responsible for menial and essential tasks that keep communities and countries running, but are unaccounted for in personal and societal economics. Fetching water, collecting firewood, caring for children. As instability and insecurity tremble, these fundamental tasks will begin to take more time, leaving less room for women’s and girls’ education, employment, leisure, creativity and innovation.


This is not a rosy picture. Yet women and girls, like Mother Nature herself, are resilient. Not only are they uniquely affected by climate change, but they are also instigators of solutions. Creative, smart solutions that are springing up globally. Custom made for the problems that face communities.


In the face of globalization and environmental degradation fuelled by behemoth corporate greed, bigger is not always better. As Naomi Klein argues so ferociously and articulately in This Changes Everything, localized solutions are creating real impact in the fight for the environment. Women are often at the forefront of these effective local movements. Indigenous people and communities offer a wealth of knowledge and understanding that needs to inform humanity’s relationship to ecosystems and biodiversity.


Women and girls are also uniquely poised to make an environmental impact through reproductive health. Boys and men also need to play an equal and active role, and to be respected as conscientious, capable, compassionate humans. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are not only important for health and equity, but they also play a critical role in the thoughtful stewardship of our earth. As overpopulation and excessive consumption meet in a destructive marriage, creating access to reproductive health information, supplies and services is essential. Smart and effective – and a basic human right.


This extends to menstrual health management, an area where women and girls are making a positive difference. Globally, reusable menstrual cups and pads are increasingly recognized as environmentally-friendly options. At a fraction of the cost and with none of the toxins and mysterious ingredients found in of disposable menstrual supplies, reusable supplies make sense in diverse contexts. From a health, economic, cultural and environmental perspective, women and girls are making the switch to reusable menstrual health management.


Women and girls stand to lose the most in the face of climate change. They are also harbingers of hope that are modelling conscientious solutions around the world. Women and girls are springing up everywhere as creative, smart stewards of Mother Nature.

 

IMG_9612By Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership

Irene is an advocate for women’s health. A published writer and photographer, she seeks out the beautiful and the just, and incorporates both into her work. She is award-winning for her work as the founder and Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership, an organization that seeks to empower girls and women to live their lives to the fullest. She is a communications consultant in international women’s and children’s health. She is the recipient of a Nelson Mandela Graça Machel Innovation Award and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and has been shortlisted for a CBC Literary Award. 

 

Twenty Thousand Words: Photo-Essay of a Girls’ Program in Cameroon

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Anyone who knows me will tell that I can be, er, verbose. Read: I use too many words. Particularly when I love something as much as I love Mother Nature Partnership – and when I believe in something as strongly as I believe in our impact – I can tend to ramble. So I thought I would put faith in the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand word. (By extension, twenty photos are worth twenty thousand words, right?)

Here is a look at our girls’ program in Wabane District in Cameroon. This community has welcomed us in to work with girls in high school, by providing access to information and reusable supplies for menstrual care. Because when you have quality menstrual care, you are free to stop worrying about your period and start living your life freely. Enjoy this snapshot of the moments that shape our work, and the people we are privileged to work in partnership with.

Teacher-with-baby

Girls are at the centre of everything we do. Maybe one day this beautiful baby girl will participate in our program when she is a student! Her mama is a teacher who will be able to guide her through her own menstrual evolution.

Students-looking-in

Girls watch the program with rapt attention. Students often congregate outside of the classroom doors and windows to see what the program is all about. In each school we work with, the program is open to girls students from every grade.

Shopkeeper

A local shopkeeper in Wabane District provides supplies for the community. Sanitary pads from this shop cost about $10 USD – a cost that is universally prohibitive to girl students. The result? Most girls use nothing at all or makeshift unhygienic supplies for menstrual care.

Principal

Principals welcome us into their schools and make us feel proud to be a part of the community. They have their students’ best interests at heart. Working with these school leaders is important to making a lasting impact and being a part of the individual fabric of that school. But – male teachers and principals are asked to leave the girls’ program, to much laughter from the girls!

Focus-group

A teacher from Wabane District congregates with other women for a group conversation that is focussed on the needs, challenges and solutions in the community. The conversation over dinner touches everything from the students, to family planning, to menstrual care, to marriage norms. This woman and I connected as we were both in our third trimester of pregnancy at the time.

care.

Elder

Elders from the community are pivotal to understanding how we can make a lasting impact. Community leaders like this man care deeply about the girls in their community. In partnership with them we discuss tactics for increasing graduation rates among girls, as well as providing every girl student with the materials and information she needs to fully participate at school and realize health and happiness.

Supplies-Pads-Cups

Every participant has the choice between reusable cups from Femmecup or a reusable Afripads kit donated from Lunapads’ One4Her program. This choice is based on each girl’s personal preference, and comes with training on how to use the supplies safely and keep them clean for years to come.

Teacher

This teacher is quickly rifling through supplies to make sure that girl students have their choice of reusable menstrual cups or pads.

Underwear

Underwear are provided to all participants so that they have a hygienic, reliable pair to wear during menstruation.

Teachers

The teachers in Wabane District are a smart and talented group, and they drive how to best bring the programming to their students.

Teacher-guiding-student

A teacher guides her student in learning how to use reusable pads. This girl was in a classroom where no one knew what menstruation was – but it turned out that 6 girls had already experienced menses without knowing what it was. Access to information is essential: armed with knowledge, a girl has incredible power.

Students-at-desks

Tracking and reporting our impact is important, so that we can learn what has huge impact and what needs to be improved for future programs. Surveys are distributed at the beginning of the program and then 6 months later, to measure changes and impact over time.

Student-activity

A flurry of activity! The sessions with the girl students are fun, engaging and very loud. The room buzzes with excitement.

Principal-office

Never has “going to the Principal’s office” been so positive: before every workshop, we meet with the school’s Principal to discuss the students and the best approach for that particular school. Informal dialogue continues with the Principal at other opportunities, to make sure we have as much information as possible.

Kids-running

Girls and boys from every grade flock with excitement to a school-wide assembly that emphasizes the importance of getting an education. This theme is a thread that goes throughout our programming.

Hard-to-reach

We believe it is important to bring our program to the hardest-to-reach schools. A day-long journey over hostile terrain brings us to the most remote school in Wabane District, and the response from the girl students makes it worth the trip. We continue to be committed to reaching every girl, regardless of geography, income and other factors.

Girls-laughing

Three students examine a reusable menstrual pad, smiling and in awe. For many of the girls, they have never seen or heard of these before, and there are audible “oohs!” and “ahhhs!” from students during the demonstration of how to use and care for the supplies. This is particularly true from the older girls that have already started menstruating.

Evaluation-Surveys

To grow and learn, we need to track what works as well as where we fall short. This is a late night stapling session as we put the finishing touches on the pre- and post-program surveys, the night before our first workshop. These surveys track a whole host of information about the participants, from menstrual health knowledge to available income for menstrual supplies to behaviours around school attendance and menstrual care.

Girls-filling-surveys

Girls thoughtfully fill out their pre-program surveys, to help Mother Nature Partnership learn from them about their needs, behaviours, thoughts and preferences. These an important tool for us to improve our programming every year.

Girl-Student

We come full circle: at the heart of our program is the freedom, access and happiness of each and every girl that we have the privilege to work in partnership with.

IMG_9612All photographs and text by Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership. This is the first in a series of blog about Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program in Cameroon. 

 

Equity Schmequity: How All Things Are Not Equal This Menstrual Hygiene Day

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Equity-GirlHappy Menstrual Hygiene Day! I guess we aren’t at the point yet where there are fireworks for this particular celebration? We don’t gather at a pub and dye the beer red, or cheers our Bloody Mary’s. We don’t bake red velvet cupcakes for our friends and tell stories of past periods or share wishes for our coming cycles. Neither do we dress up in costumes and go door-to-door asking for menstrual supplies. “Trick or tampon!” That’s alright – we have enough holidays already.

So what do we do for this, the second menstrual hygiene day? Personally, it has me thinking about the big questions. Namely: what does menstruation have to do with our rights as women, and how close are we to equity when it comes to menstrual health?

I had used the words equality and equity interchangeably until a discussion in a university women’s studies course taught me that they are different things. I impatiently listened to the definitions the way I listened to many topics in that class: fascinated and fired up by the topics, but also frustrated that there was so much gosh-darn talking. Everything was debated until what was wrong, was right, and by the end of it you didn’t know your name anymore. Everything was questioned. What I had thought was wrong might be empowering, and what was right might be objectifying. (I have since decided for myself that there are very few rights or wrongs, and what matters is choice. But let’s save something for another blog…)

Girls absorbing information about menstruation and how to take care of your body.

Girls absorbing information about menstruation and how to take care of your body.

The professor gave a very clear example of equality versus equity, which has stuck with me ever since. Take public washrooms, for example. Equality is having two identical washrooms, one for men and one for women, each with four stalls. Men and women are treated exactly the same. Equity, on the other hand, could be a washroom for men with two stalls and a handful of urinals. The women’s washroom could have six stalls and no urinals. Maybe both could have accessible stalls to be inclusive to all needs, and could both have changing tables so that both can contribute to changing diapers. This second scenario takes into account certain differences between men and women, without placing one above the other. It seeks to meet everyone’s unique needs. Of course, you could also have one massive washroom where everyone has access and it has everything you need! There are countless variations on the example and we could discuss this example ad nauseam, but you get the idea.

Menstrual care is all about equity. When a girl or woman is denied menstrual care, either intentionally or through neglect, it is inequity. It is injustice. Because it disadvantages and holds her back. It doesn’t recognize or meet her unique needs. For the girls we work with in Cameroon, this inequity is a monthly reality. One that we are seeking to address, together. Nearly all of the girls in Wabane District have no access to the essential menstrual supplies that they need. Not want. Need. Because they have barriers – namely financial – to menstrual supplies, they resort to using scrap materials or nothing at all. Because of the embarrassment that inevitably comes from this, girls are absent, or worse, they drop out of school. The consequences of this are obviously and unacceptably far-reaching: lower grades, decreased graduation levels, earlier marriage and child-bearing, and lower incomes. This then impacts her family and her community. Not to mention her health and happiness, which should be considered paramount but somehow doesn’t weigh as much as the financial and educational considerations.

Inequity around menstruation is not restricted to Cameroon. We experience it here in Canada, too. While most of our girls and women do have access to menstrual supplies, until recently we haven’t considered menstrual products a need, but rather a frivolous want. Recently we have seen progress, as the movement to eliminate GST from tampons and pads gains momentum with the Canadian government. In fact, as of July 1st the tax will be gone for good. This is good news, if overdue. But we still do not enforce any laws that hold pad and tampon companies to share what chemicals and toxins they put in their products. Despite these supplies coming into prolonged contact with one of the most absorptive parts of a woman’s body, we don’t ask these companies for transparency. We ask food companies to disclose what they put in their products, because we believe it is our right to know. But not for menstrual supplies? This, too, is inequity.

Things will never be equal when it comes to menstruation. That would be ridiculous. Men don’t menstruate. And that’s okay. Because we are inherently different, just as every individual is unique from one another. That is what makes us human beings beautiful, and what separates us from mosquitos and photocopies. But things can, and must, be equitable where menstruation is concerned. All that we needed is full access, full information and full choice. And that isn’t as hard as we make it out to be.

IMG_9612By Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership. 

 

The Youngest Girl at G Day

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gday1My motivation for being involved with G Day Toronto changed over the months I’ve been involved with it. Changed dramatically. It became real for me.

When I first was invited by Lunapads to be a part of the organizing committee for the inaugural G Day Toronto, I was thrilled. It had been a success in Vancouver, and now it was time to bring it to my community. G Day is a celebration of girls age 10 to 12, and provides them with community-based rites of passage as they make the age-old journey from girlhood to adolescence. How could I not want to be a part of it? While I was busy preparing for Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program and was also pregnant and trying to keep some sense of calm and space in my life, I was compelled to commit to G Day Toronto. I had three great reasons that drew me to the event.

First and foremost, I believe wholeheartedly in the purpose of the event. G Day strives to inspire positive self-esteem and supportive family and community relationships as girls start that incomparable transition to womanhood. This couldn’t be more aligned with my own belief that the onset of puberty and menarche should be marked with respect and celebration.

I was also honoured to be a part of the powerhouse group of women who are on the organizing committee of G Day Toronto. I was thrilled to be invited to join the committee by Madeleine Shaw of Lunapads. The group is led by Toronto-based educator Emily Rose Antflick. The other dynamic women who have been pouring their hearts and souls into the event are Zahra Haji of Yoga Goddess, Alison Smyth, Tanya Geisler, and heroes of mine Amy and Kim Sedgwick of Red Tent Sisters. I am proud to be in the company of these women. What a force.

SIMILARITIES smallThe third reason that drew me to G Day Toronto was the opportunity to share stories about the young women that I had the great privilege of meeting in Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program in early 2015. G Day would provide me with a forum to connect girls in Canada with their counterparts in Cameroon. This would be the manifestation of the partnership that is central to our identity as an organization. I would be able to talk about the similarities and differences between girlhood in these two countries. I could shed light on the universalities that unite us all – at least, from my perspective. From my own childhood, I can remember clearly speakers and events that had a profound impact on my understanding of the world and my place in it. I hope to make a similar lasting impression on girls that gather this Sunday, through my stories of girls in Central Africa and their relationship with menstruation and adolescence. I’m looking forward to talking with these Canadian girls about my experiences in Cameroon – and to telling them that girls everywhere talk, question and laugh about the same things.

Annaliese in StarsBut what made G Day more real – more vital – for me? On March 27, I welcomed my new daughter into the world. The most beautiful person (I’m not biased, am I?) came into my life. And she is a girl, adolescent and woman in the making. One day in the not-so-distant future this stunning being will be confronted with myriad negative cultural forces, hard decisions, the cruelties of adolescent social circles and the bombardment of pressures that face a young woman in our society. That, I am sad to say, is inevitable. Will she be strong enough to know herself? Will she feel supported, smart and powerful enough to withstand these forces like a wavering but sturdy tree on a windy day? Will I be able to equip her, as much as any mother can, to be kind, confident, self-respecting and powerful in the face of a patriarchal system that has heavy demands to weigh on her shoulders?

I sincerely hope so. Right now, she is sleeping soundly right beside me, perfect and beautiful and powerful and whole, and I wish with all my heart that she sees herself in that same light. Yes, even into adolescence. And in the meantime, as she sleeps and grows and enjoys infant bliss, I hope that the women and girls that come together this Sunday can support one another in a community of strength.

I hope that every girl and woman there sees herself as perfect and beautiful and powerful and whole.

To Our Friends, With Love

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Blog3-SupplyTablePartnership is in our name. Heck – it is at the root of our identity as an organization. In a society that seems increasingly linear, self-serving and insular (think business or science), I see an alternative: people working collaboratively and supportively to create meaningful change in individual lives, communities and full societies. Access to information and connections can have a huge impact on the way that we interact with each other, and how me look to affect lasting change.

From the moment I first thought of menstrual cups as a solution to broader challenges facing women and girls, partnership was a crucial element. There needed to be partnerships between Cameroonians and Canadians, between people and the planet we call home, and between females and our own bodies. (Yes, my uterus and I are on the same team.)

Nowhere was partnership as important as in Mother Nature’s recent girls’ menstrual health program in Cameroon. We simply could not have done it alone. I could not go it alone. This incredible impact became a reality because of our partners, our generous donors, our Question Period trivia-ers, our silent auction supporters, our volunteers, our Cash Flow contributors and our community of family and friends. That is a lot of people who put time, money and moral support into this labour of love.

Blog3-GirlsExploringPadsOne such partnership, which revolutionized our program, is with Lunapads. They recently donated 1,000 AFRIpad kits through their remarkable buy-one-give-one One4Her program. These reusable menstrual pads are made in Uganda, and are safe, hygienic, affordable, culturally appropriate and good for the environment. So, we like them. A lot. (If you’re interested, you can take a browse at Lunapads, and partial proceeds from your purchase will help to fund more projects like ours.) The kits that we integrated into our program in Wabane District in Cameroon include two holders, five washable inserts and a discrete carrying bag. This last clever piece – the carrying bag – really comes in handy for the majority of girls who don’t have access to a private bathroom at school. As part of our comprehensive, girl-focussed curriculum, we showed students how exactly to use and care for their reusable menstrual pads.

The girl participants in our program were thrilled with the pads. (Every girl is provided with a choice between reusable pads or a reusable cup, based on their personal preferences.) And by thrilled, I mean there were shouts of approval and spontaneous applause in every classroom where we introduced the pads. For most of the girls that we work with in Cameroon, they have never used a pad or cup, and instead resort to toilet paper or nothing at all for menstrual care. This, of course, leads to unsanitary conditions, embarrassment (starting menses can be overwhelming enough when you have supplies to care for it!) and absenteeism from school. In contrast to this state of affairs, having a convenient, discrete and most importantly reusable source of menstrual care can be life-changing. It makes the difference between staying at home, and going to school, healthy and happy.

The powerhouse female teachers we work with were also intrigued by the pads, and came up to me after the workshops to ask for a kit of pads that they too could use for menstrual care. (The disposable pads that I found available for purchase in Cameroon were massive, boat-like, wingless relics from a different era. I would not wish them on anyone.)

Girls lining up to receive their AFRIpad kits.

Girls lining up to receive their AFRIpad kits.

What’s more, I learned that the girls in our program are far more receptive to reusable supplies than your average Canadian. There is a lot that Canadians can glean from these Cameroonian girls, who are immediately keen on the idea of reusable supplies and quickly adopt the practice of washing, drying and meticulously caring for their pads so that they last for years.

It isn’t always easy for me to accept it, but every one needs to ask for help. We cannot do it alone. The amount of support I have received in the lead up, implementation and ongoing monitoring of our girls’ program is staggering. The generosity and entrepreneurial, creative approach of Lunapads has been instrumental to the impact we have seen so far, and continue to see. Not to mention the menstrual cups that are highly subsidized for us through Femmecup, and the underwear that were sourced and partly funded by Aangen. And every person who contributed to Mother Nature has made our program possible, in every imaginable way. I am grateful to say that the list of people who are in partnership with Mother Nature is very long and very rich indeed.

IMG_9612By Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership. This is the first in a series of blog about Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program in Cameroon. 

 

Women Talk: A Meaningful Conversation with the Teachers of Wabane District

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Blog2-WomenLaughing

There is nothing like being surrounded by a group of wonderful women.

On one recent night, teachers from the surrounding schools of Wabane District in Cameroon gathered together for dinner. All of them were women, and they taught a variety of subjects and ages at primary and secondary schools in the region. The purpose of our dinner was to have an informal focus group about the current state and specific needs of the girls and women in the region, based on the teachers’ expertise and personal experiences. The incessant laughter, candor and tender conversation were all happy side effects.

There were eleven of us, including me. We gathered around outside in a circle of chairs, halfway up a grand mountain that overlooks the district. Palm and banana trees dot the side of the mountain, and most of the time the stunning view is painted over with wisps of haze because of the altitude. Our circle was located beside the outdoor brick cooking structure, so we could be close to Stella, who was kindly cooking dinner for everyone and was an integral part of the conversation.

Now, the term “girl talk” definitely reduces the depth and richness of our conversation, so I will call it Women Talk. The conversation was frank and honest, and meandered from sex (obviously the first topic that came up!) to dating, marriage, contraception, abortion, career and childbirth. The topics spanned the phases of a female’s life from girlhood to beyond menopause.

The women were as curious about my (and by extension, the North American) female experience as I was about their experiences of being women in Cameroon. Of course, we were a group of individuals and can’t possibly represent all of the women from our cultures. But there are certainly cultural influences that contribute to our experience of womanhood.

We asked one another all of the questions that were on our mind. There were no restrictions. Having open dialogue was a great way to address all of the questions and musings we’d had over the past two weeks of working together on Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program. Most of the questions reinforced for me how universal womanhood is. And then some questions illustrated some glaring differences.

Blog2-PregnantWomanSo what about the conversation showed me how universal womanhood is? The first question for me was, “Do you still have sex while you’re pregnant?” and we had a riot from there on. The way that we laughed felt universal. So did the way that we connected immediately, and felt safe and authentic. I felt the same way I would with a group of female friends in Canada. And the makeup of the group was familiar: one woman was brazen and unafraid to be vulgar, making everyone laugh repeatedly; one woman was watchful and curious, and carefully chose her questions; yet another woman was friendly and kind, keeping an eye on her toddler while engaging in the conversation. Both myself and a woman in the group were far along in our pregnancies, and we bonded over this easily. Our connection felt similar to the one I had the other day with a pregnant woman at a Riverdale coffee shop – after seeing each other’s “baby bumps” we went quickly from strangers to comrades. The questions that we asked each other were the same: are you having a boy or a girl (ours is a surprise!), how many weeks are you, how do you feel and so on.

And what were those other questions, the ones that brought our differences to light? Well, the question, “So what would you do if your husband took a second wife?” comes to mind. (It was somewhere around this time that I, a vegetarian for the past ten years, heard two chickens being caught and killed ten feet away, and tried unsuccessfully to keep my face casual as if I kill chickens for dinner every day.) All eyes were on me, and I answered, “He wouldn’t”. They pressed me further. “But what if he did?” I answered, “It’s illegal in Canada”, and they retorted again, “But what if he did?” Well, that stumped me. Eventually I said, “I don’t want to think about it!” and again we laughed together. They also asked me if it was true that in America women are so afraid of labour pains that they schedule ceasarean sections ahead of time, whether abortions were legal in Canada and whether we had to take contraception in secret from our male partners. This last one particularly showed a major difference – most Canadian men in their 20’s would be more than happy to have their partners take the pill, but these women shared that they often had to do so in secrecy or not at all. They expressed that the number of children they had was not their decision to make. (Of course, this is not a statement about all women in Cameroon, but rather the experience of the women in this group).

The women were shocked to hear that my husband Nik does more of the cooking than I do, and that he will be taking a paternity leave while I continue to work – and suffice it to say, I left the conversation feeling infinitely grateful that I have such a supportive and giving partner, and that we have infinite freedom to carve out gender roles as suits our personalities. In the conversation, I learned that these educated, smart women had numerous questions about menopause as they had heard rumours about it but didn’t know what it entailed. I am by no means an expert in menopause but the information I shared was eagerly received and followed with more menopause questions. They said that it was not talked about, and I made a note to incorporate a brief section on menopause into the girls’ programming – information to file away for later in life. This was only one piece of information I learned, amidst a wealth of new information that these women gifted to me.

Surpassing these interesting differences was what brought us all together: was care and dedication for the girls in the communities of Wabane District. Lack of menstrual care, economic hardships and early pregnancies are very real challenges that these girls are faced with, often forcing them out of school before they complete their education. Of course, dropping out of school for these reasons leads to further challenges, and often perpetuates a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet. These powerful women teachers work day after day, and year after year, to support these girls and guide them to finish their education before starting a family. And often they have to watch as classrooms slowly go from a 50/50 split of boys and girls to classrooms made up predominantly of boys. These girls and boys then become the women and men of society, and are separated by the gender restrictions that are forced upon them. As they are upon men and women everywhere, albeit in different ways. This affects me deeply, as it does the group of women teachers. We were also united in our sharing of ideas: how we can alter this reality and provide the girls with everything the need to fulfill their potential? Because their potential is abundant, and clearly evident when you spend any amount of time with them.

When the conversation ended, I was left with new ideas, a wealth of information and fresh curiosities, renewed conviction that our program is essential – and sore cheeks from laughing so hard.

Blog2-GroupofWomen

IMG_9612By Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership. This is the first in a series of blog about Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program in Cameroon. 

 

Bird’s Eye View: From Observer to Participant

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Blog1-ClassofGirlsMy recent travels to Cameroon marked Mother Nature Partnership’s first time implementing a menstrual health program exclusively for girls. It was also my first time travelling to Cameroon, despite having been immersed in our menstrual health programming in the country for five years. I’ve travelled four other times in African countries, to volunteer for various projects including teaching at an HIV/AIDS orphanage in Kenya, starting a woman’s education program with Congolese refugees in Uganda and leading HIV/AIDS theatre and dance programming in Bénin. And yet, I’d often been left with a couple of crucial questions about how much impact this work really had.

I knew our work had impact because of the reporting from past partners in the region. And yet, while I was smack dab in the middle of our organization, I only had a bird’s eye view. It is always different when you are involved in a program firsthand. It has always been important to Mother Nature Partnership to limit international travel and foreign involvement in our programs as much as possible, preferring to implement our programs through local staff. For this pilot project, however, we needed a different approach. Enter: me. And Nikolas MacLean, our Director of Operations (as well as my lovely husband!) who has been involved in our work for three years, and who was also excited to see our programming in the flesh for the first time. The plan was that we would be implementing the girls’ program with 1,000 girls, while also working with local women educators so as to build up our connections, capacity and sustainability.

We were located in Wabane District in the Southwest Province of Cameroon. This district is a rural region on the side of a mountain. The geographically vast area spans from a tropical, humid community at the base of the mountain up to a moderate, cool community at 2,200 metres above sea level. Because of the wide range of temperatures and landscapes, it is not unusual to see papayas and potatoes grown in the same village. The earth is deep red, and everything else seems to be green, with a lush covering of palm and banana trees. In a country that is predominantly French-speaking, this district is made up of Anglophones. Most families make a living through farming.

Blog1-GirlsExploringPadsThe purpose of our visit was to increase attendance among high school girls, by providing menstrual health education and reusable menstrual supplies. It is a near- universal fact of life for the girls in our program that purchasing menstrual supplies is out of the question. What this means it that girls get resourceful with cloth or toilet paper, or use nothing at all for menstrual care. Faced with menstruation, a lack of supplies and no bathroom at school, I know that I wouldn’t attend class either. Access to comprehensive menstrual care gives these girls the freedom to attend school throughout the month, instead of being absent whenever they are menstruating.

1,400 girls were involved in the program, far exceeding our goal of 1,000 participants. Every day we were greeted by hordes of girl students in crowded classrooms, dressed smartly in their uniforms. The sessions were always exclusively girls-only spaces, so that there was room for free dialogue and a feeling of safety.

Blog1-GirlswithCupsThe curriculum took a holistic view of the transition from girlhood to womanhood. As a group, we discussed the social factors, the physical changes and the ever-important need to stay in school past the onset of puberty. We learned about the female anatomy and the biology of menstruation. The girls asked heaps of questions. What do I do if I leak on my school uniform? What can you do to ease cramps? Is it normal if discharge comes at times other than menstruation? We talked about how the length of the cycle, the age of menarche, the consistency of the blood and the irregularity of one’s cycle were all normal.

Each girl is being provided with her choice of reusable menstrual supplies: either a cup from Femmecup or pads from Lunapads through their sister organization AfriPads. The cup is made of silicon and is worn internally, and a girl or woman needs one to take care of her menstruation healthily. The pads come in a wonderful kit which includes two holders with wings, five inserts and a carrying bag for bringing used pads home to wash. Both products are long-lasting and reusable, unbelievably better for the environment than commercial products, healthy options for the most sensitive and absorptive part of the female body, and economical as they can be used month after month after month. Girls were also provided with a new pair of underwear, which were provided in part with our lovely charity partner Aangen.

When the girls saw the reusable supplies, there were audible ooohs and aaaahs. The girls that hadn’t started menstruating yet were cautiously excited at the big changes to come. The girls who had already started menstruating were giddy at the prospect of having something other than cloth, toilet paper or nothing at all to absorb their flow.

I have never had more genuine interactions with community members, more of a sense of partnership, or more confirmation that a program has value. I heard a resounding YES! that our program has merit for the girls that we work with, and a universal request to expand our programming. And it has to grow so that every girl has access to the information, pads, cups and underwear – really tangible solutions – that she needs. I feel privileged to have flown down from my bird’s eye view and to have had the great fortune of meeting these smart, funny and committed girls firsthand.

Having access to their very own reusable supplies is a new reality for the girls of Wabane District. In a lot of ways, it means freedom.

IMG_9612By Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership. This is the first in a series of blog about Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program in Cameroon. 

Question Period

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Get ready for Question Period, our second infamous trivia night! Come to the Drake Hotel on December 2, 2014 for a good food, good drink, great cause party. 

Comedic geniuses Hannah Cheesman & Kristian Bruun will test your knowledge of the factual and the inane, and of course, into every trivia night a little blood must fall with some period-centric questions. You’ll be having so much fun that you will barely notice you are supporting MNP’s groundbreaking work in January 2015: all proceeds will help provide 1,000 girls in Cameroon with menstrual health supplies and information. Plus – there are prizes to be won!

You can sign up your team of four players or sign up as an individual (do you trust our matchmaking skills?!). Name your team (and yes, there are points for wit and cleverness).

Doors open at 7 pm so we can roll up our sleeves and get serious about trivia at 8 pm. Tickets are $15 per person or $60 for a team of four. See you at #QuestionPeriodTO.

SIGN UP FOR QUESTION PERIOD!

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Fact or Fiction: Are the moon and menstruation connected?

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moon-phasesIt’s that old statistician’s lament: correlation isn’t causation. Two things that seem like they sync up often turn out to be a coincidence. Take, for example, a woman’s menstrual cycle and the lunar calendar. At first glance, they seem like they might somehow intertwine: after all, they both last about a month, they both have distinct cyclical phases, and the moon plays a key role in other earthly liquid phenomena like the tides. But does the science check out?

Spoiler alert: nope! Not even a little.

First, some backstory. Humans have a long history of seeing the moon as a feminine force: in ancient Greece, Phoebe was the lunar goddess (sister of Helios, the sun god, naturally). Her other name? Mene, which is one of the roots of the words menstruation. The Mayan moon goddess is associated with fertility and procreation, but also with crops and water: basically, anything that grows from the earth. And Artume, an Etruscan moon goddess, was linked to the night and fertility. These mythologies tend to depict lunar deities as smart, beautiful, and governing natural cycles where fertility would be especially important, like farming and the annual harvest.

On the dark side, werewolves and vampires are both linked to moonlight, and while those figures are fictional, their interest in blood just can’t be denied. Werewolves are an especially potent character, since they’re “normal” for 28 days and a monster for a single full-mooned night. There’s a hoary old joke about ladies on their periods in that one, right? (Sigh.)

Let’s get out of the Turner Classic Monster stable and back into the science lab. Some facts: the moon’s cycle is highly regular, with a fresh new moon debuting every 29.53 days. This happens regardless of what else is going on in the universe. Solar flares, space landings and asteroids don’t affect the moon. Our little satellite spins dependably along, fattening itself up for the full moon and then waning into a sliver before hiding itself entirely as the new moon.

Women’s cycles are a little more…unpredictable. Our systems are a complex biological loop that can be affected by stress, hormones, sickness, and even exercise. It’s common for people’s cycles to vary between 21 days and 35 days. Even women who report regular periods can have an unpredictably long or short cycle once in a while. Here’s why: each month, the body tries to release an egg at the best time to achieve pregnancy. If the body senses a fever or stress hormones, there’s no use releasing an egg into a body that’s too hot, stressed, or hungry to keep it healthy. Our bodies are willing to wait a little while to keep the egg optimized and ready for fertilization, and that’s when we’re faced with a cycle that’s longer than usual.

So why do our cultures link the moon and the menstrual cycle?

Well, for starters: it’s easy. Humans have been creating lunar calendars since we first noticed the moon waxing and waning, and some religions and cultures still use them to this day. Some Native American tribes used full moons to track important seasonal milestones—the Corn Planting moon in May, or the Travel Moon in the fall beaver-trapping season, for example—and both the Islamic and Jewish faiths still use a lunar calendar to establish important feast and fasting days throughout each year.

Menstrual cycles seem to fall along roughly the same timelines, and it can be tempting to use the moon’s cycles to track an ovulatory or menstrual cycle. Tempting, but unless you’re ready to pick out baby names, you might want to rethink it. Studies that link the moon with fertility or contraception have been inconclusive, and for a good reason: every woman is different. Every cycle can be different.

It can also be beautiful to consider yourself part of the fabric of the natural world. It can be empowering to remember that cultures throughout the world and history have looked up into the night sky and seen a powerful and unabashedly female figure shining down on them. The moon’s waxing phase, as it fills out and brightens the night sky, is an especially vivid symbol of pregnancy and fecundity, which are, of course, directly related to menstruation.

But relying too heavily on the supposed link between menstruation and the moon can be a recipe for heartbreak, both for people trying to achieve pregnancy and those who are actively avoiding it. Instead, turn your gaze inward and, uh, slightly downward: indicators like cervical mucus, basal body temperature and ovulation cramps can be more reliable signs of how your menstrual cycle is progressing.

No matter how you see the moon — whether with scientific interest, or with wonder, or both — it’s hard to deny that its cycles are powerful. But so, too, are women’s menstrual cycles. Just think twice before seeing that correlation of power as one cycle causing the other.

Kaitlyn Kochany is a Toronto-based writer, blogger, sex nerd, cyclist, amateur yogini and co-op housing enthusiast. She can be found at @terrorofthe416 and at http://kaitlynkochany.com.