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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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.

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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.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go… With Your Menstrual Cup!

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Oh-The-Places-Youll-Go-Front-CoverPeople often ask me, “Can you wear a menstrual cup to yoga?” or “Is it ok to wear a cup while swimming?”

It got me thinking. And reminiscing.

My menstrual cup and I have gone on oh-so-many adventures together. She has been like a trusted friend, keeping me company while I go hither and yon. And you, too, can go places with your menstrual cup!

My menstrual cup and I have gone to yoga. Sure. That one’s easy. We have engaged in any number of physical activities together, including dance class, rock climbing, swimming in lakes, long distance cycling. We have performed on stage together, in small costumes with rigorous movements. Yikes. We have gone camping together – oh, have we gone camping together, at many-a-site. We went on a ten-day backcountry kayaking trip on Lake Superior together, with nary a washroom or human-made building to visit. Instead, we had the beauty and majesty of wild woods, tumultuous water, verdant moss and Canadian Shield.

We have visited Peru, India, Ghana, Arizona and France together, to name a few places. We have gone paragliding together, which was scary for the both of us, but not because of risk of leakage. (No, it was the fear of fall-age that really had us.) We have been camel riding together, unbeknownst to our fair camel. We don’t think he minded.

First dates. Grandfather’s cabin in the woods. Public speaking. Conferences. Boardrooms. Nights out on the town. Farms, cottages, lakes, fields. A honeymoon in a camper van in the Dordogne. We’ve gone there – together. She is more discrete than any pad, heartier than any tampon and more reliable than the two put together – not to mention way more thrifty and conscious about the environment. She’s a cool cat. She is a faithful, quiet travel companion – so imperceptible that most of the time I forget she is there. We have that comfortable silence thing working for us. And yes, my menstrual cup is game for an adventure of any scope or scale.

My guess is that yours is, too. So have no fear, and embrace the adventure together. Go places with your menstrual cup, fearlessly. Or, if you prefer, comfortably.

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

What’s in a Name? A Call for Increased Maternal and Newborn Health Integration

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This post was originally published on Maternal Health Task Force.

The language that we use is important. The words that we choose to communicate our ideas reveal where our priorities are, and they inform the action that we take as a result of these ideas. Verbiage translates the thoughts and intentions of a person, or persons, to other people and organizations and eventually shapes the action that we take. Because of this, it is crucial that we place mothers—women—at the core of Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) from the very moment that we engage in conversation.

Earlier this year, there was an opportunity for a worldwide conversation about the important Every Newborn: An Action Plan to End Preventable Deaths (ENAP). Diverse actors were asked for their input on the first draft in a multi-sectoral consultation. The Action Plan launched on June 30th in Johannesburg, South Africa at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (PMNCH) Partners’ Forum. There has been global colloquy about this plan that, led by WHO and coordinated by a central group of experts, drew on the expertise and insights of stakeholders at multiple global and regional levels. The plan is at once aspirational and practical, with a strong action plan and five guiding principles, as well as milestones and a monitoring framework. Positioned in a global landscape of renewed MNCH commitments and following the Canadian-hosted Saving Every Woman Every Child Summit, this document comes at a crucial moment when there is unified, global momentum towards ending the preventable deaths of the most vulnerable women, newborns and children.

This all sounds great. And it is great. The document is to be applauded, and will mobilize global players towards an imperative goal of ending preventable deaths of the most vulnerable. To come together in open discussion and accelerate the global progress in MNCH is essential and admirable, and the openness to stakeholders’ insights is important. But where is the ‘M’—mother—in the newborn-focused Every Newborn Action Plan? To echo the importance of point 4 of the Maternal Health Task Force’s Manifesto for Maternal Health post-2015, “(T)he successful framework of the continuum of care must be redefined to make women more central to our notions of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health”.

IMG_7399Yes. Let’s make women more central-because they are the core of MNCH, their improved health outcomes directly improve the health of newborns and children, and because they deserve it in their own right, as a human right.

It is important that we reinforce the role of “M” in MNCH so that we can sustain and accelerate the progress that has been realized. ENAP is a strong and important document and is positioned on the continuum of care, and it emphasizes equity with women being integrated throughout the plan. However it is important that we be bolder about bringing women to the fore of the continuum of care.

Placing Women at the Core

A woman as an independent being has value irrespective of her role in MNCH and by positioning her at the centre, we recognize this value and also create health gains that extend to her newborns and children. Diminishing her central role is to devalue her, at a crucial moment when we need to revalue her. This is particularly salient in cultural contexts where a woman’s human rights are disregarded. A woman is not a bystander or vessel moving from stage to stage of the continuum of care, but rather is a central figure whose health and well-being is necessary first and foremost for her own fulfillment. Her health is also essential for the delivery and ongoing health of infants and children who grow to fulfill their own selves, and it is through a woman’s health that we can end preventable deaths.

And so again I restate it: The language that we use is important. By being inclusive of women and bring them to the centre of MNCH, we make a bold statement about our priorities and stand ready to accelerate the health of women, newborns and children. We encourage theoreticians and practitioners in the MNCH space—private, public and civil society sectors alike—to explicitly emphasize the ‘M’ in MNCH. For her newborn, for her community, and for her.

The Woman in the Red Polka Dot Dress

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Last weekend at a music festival, a foot-stomper of a band was playing while the audience sat in the grass. Heads were swaying, shoulders were a-shimmying, toes were tapping.  Suffice it to say that more than a few of us were itching to dance. Halfway through the song, a woman in a red polka dot dress stood up and started to dance. She twirled and stomped, and one by one every other person got the courage to stand up and dance like they wanted to. Not that sexy-someone-is-watching-me dance. No – this was a sweaty, summery, heart-all-in-it dance.

That same weekend, someone asked me what I think is most important to move menstrual health forward. And the answer came out of my mouth before I had even rationalized it: we need to talk about menstruation. Talk about our bodies, our cycles, our secrets, our monthly frustrations and our moments when we revel in being women.

That was my intuitive response. But later when I thought about it, it turned out that my head agreed with my gut. I do believe that the time is ripe for women and men to discuss menstruation openly, plainly and respectfully. And even – dare I say it? – with humour. Otherwise it continues to be a dirty little secret that we all know happens, but that we scarcely acknowledge. It seems that this is how sex used to be hidden away several decades ago, and collectively we have brought sex into the public forum. Menstruation continues to be stigmatized in every culture of the world. Which, in this writer’s humble opinion, infuses the topic of menstruation with an intrinsic sense of shame, maybe even to the most proud period-er.

What I have noticed is that when I – a devout discusser of periods – raise the topic of menstruation in a straightforward manner, other women follow suit. When women learn that my pride-and-joy baby is the menstrual health organization Mother Nature Partnership, they often open up and ask questions they haven’t felt comfortable asking before. (“Can I have sex with a cup in? Is it bad if I feel uncomfortable emptying the cup? Can I wear it to yoga class? What do I do if my menstrual cup gets stuck inside of me?!”) Before you know it, we are swapping stories, or asking questions, or laughing about an embarrassing cup incident that haunts us still. In that moment, what was private becomes shared.

And that is what this brand spanking new blog is designed to be: a no-holds-barred, happy, inquisitive and supportive place to talk about anything – and everything – menstruation. It is a woman in a red polka dot dress, being the first one to stand up and dance.

Irene Whittaker-Cumming is the Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership, a powerhouse menstrual health organization that is the recipient of a Nelson Mandela Graça Machel Innovation Award and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant. MNP is bringing menstrual hygiene knowledge and tools to women and girls, so they can make personal choices about their own bodies.