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Periods are Political – and Powerful

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Periods are inherently political. Yet they also hold untapped potential – and power. A menstruation revolution is that it is taking place where once there was stubborn shame and secrecy.

Human bodies – especially female bodies – have been political for a long time. This is particularly true of periods. This natural function has been unmentionable even as other taboo topics have fallen by the wayside. These taboos have restricted menstruation to be considered a private affair, though it affects billions of people.

In any culture, including our own, it is unthinkable to bleed through your clothing and then go to school, work, a job interview or social event. This is why menstruating people without access to menstrual supplies stay home, and miss out. They fall behind in education or miss out on essential income. A choice of menstrual supplies exists to care for menstruation with dignity – yet lack of access deepens gender inequality.

People with periods face the double injustice of suffering through the lack of basic hygiene and dignity – and then being stigmatized for a natural bodily function. Even recently, a woman in the United States was fired and publicly shamed for accidentally leaking through her clothes while menstruating on the job.

Around the world, people without the means to purchase commercial menstrual supplies often resort to using unhygienic materials or nothing at all for menstrual care. Youth are absent from school or drop out altogether, which leads to lower incomes, earlier pregnancies and larger families with fewer resources.

In Canada, people that are already marginalized and racialized are disproportionately affected. People with periods who experience homelessness, live in northern communities, are trans or gender nonconforming, or exist in the prison system often face unjust barriers to getting basic menstrual supplies. Prices may be exorbitant, or in the case of incarcerated people, pads and tampons might be rationed out to dehumanize and manipulate. A lack of access to menstrual supplies is another intentional way that the patriarchy oppresses and restricts.

The politics of periods are particularly unjust because they are interwoven with other gender inequalities: the majority of decision-makers and lawmakers are men who don’t experience menstruation, and the women shouldering the expense of menstrual supplies have less disposable income as long as gender parity continues to elude us. Put bluntly, men get to call the shots, and women get to foot the bill.

Despite these persistent politics, periods have potential and power. In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, conversations around sexism and gender-based oppression are happening on a huge scale, making this an ideal time for period-positive programs and policies. As with feminism as a whole, menstruation is experiencing a pivotal moment.

The hundreds of millions of people who menstruate in any given day have been raising their voices louder and more frequently. What used to be whispered about behind closed doors has become an increasingly public topic.

As individuals have spoken openly about period politics in their personal lives, a menstrual movement has arisen to tackle period injustice. We are seeing activism, innovation, business savvy, and international development programming like never before.

Citizens and activists worldwide have successfully campaigned for governments to remove “pink tax” on menstrual supplies – including here in Canada in 2015. Innovative entrepreneurial businesses are offering more menstrual supply options than ever before: reusable silicon cups, absorbent underwear, non-toxic disposable products and washable pads, to name a few. Unlike the common products of the past, these innovations have been created by people who have actually experienced menstruation.

With new products on the market, each person can choose to care for their period, according to their body and their values. Environmentally-friendly? Reusable or disposable? Internal or external? Free of harmful bleaches or unknown ingredients? Pink – or decidedly not pink? All of these choices, and more, are available.

Programs in the Global South work to provide girls and women with access to menstrual information and supplies that can change their life for the better. They can care for their natural cycles with dignity, and participate more fully in school, work and community.

Here in Canada, communities are coming together to help their most marginalized menstruators, with locally-led initiatives rising up to provide access to menstrual supplies to people who have been denied access and dignity. Campuses across the country have started to provide free menstrual supplies to students. Earlier this year, the NDP passed a resolution to make menstrual products free. The politics are changing.

It is inspiring to see people coming together to unapologetically fight unjust period politics. But the moment is ripe to take it further. As our society grapples with thorny conversations of sexism and gender-based oppression, we need to include questions of information, access and choice as they relate to menstruation so that periods can be more equitable for all.

Because there is potential – and power – in half the population living with more freedom and dignity. Period.

Menstruation’s Moment: A panel about why period politics matter now more than ever

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Menstruation's MomentJoin on us on March 6 for Menstruation’s Moment: A panel about why period politics matter now more than ever. Tickets are now on sale – scroll down to purchase yours today. And – every attendee will receive a DivaCupa at the event!

To mark International Women’s Day early, grab a Bloody Caesar and bask in the energy and expertise of women at the forefront of the menstrual movement. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf – author of Periods Gone Public, the book Gloria Steinem says is “the beginning of liberation for us all” – is joined by entrepreneurs, activists and international development leaders. These vibrant, vocal visionaries are coming together in challenging and real dialogue about smashing shame, period policy, values-based business, shedding taboos, and bringing down barriers that prevent people with periods from accessing menstrual supplies.

Come explore the role that the menstrual movement must play at this turning point for intersectional feminism. 

Esteemed panellists include:

Doors open at 6 pm, and the panel begins at 7 pm at Good Gorilla Creative Coworking (401 Richmond – LL01). There will be hors d’oeuvres, drinks and a silent auction. We are excited to have you be a part of this meaningful conversation.

This event is generously sponsored by LunapadsAll proceeds from this event will go to Mother Nature Partnership, a charitable organization that works in Toronto and Cameroon to tear down the barriers that too often keep girls out of school and women out of work. By attending, you will be helping to provide access to menstrual health supplies to girls and women in Cameroon in March 2018, so they can realize their rights to health and dignity and participate fully in their own lives.

We are committed to creating as inclusive and accessible a space as possible. If ticket prices are prohibitive, please email as we have reserved free tickets to increase accessibility of the event. 

Menstrual Kits for Homeless Women in Toronto: Our First Program in Canada

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The heart of our work is found in that place where environmentalism and feminism meet. And the way that we get our work done is through partnership – as our name would imply.

Partnership to us is connection and intentional, roll-your-sleeves-up collaboration. It is partnership between women and their own bodies. Between people with much to give, and people in need. Between countries, between communities. Between people and Mother Nature herself.

Most often, that has brought us to Cameroon, where our projects have been impacted and our impact has been felt. We have been and continue to be committed to working in this region: because of great need for menstrual health programming, and because of deep connections and knowledge that make our programming appropriate and impactful. Those connections and established partnerships are critical to our existence and relevance.

How serendipitous, then, that after months of discussing working locally at home, a new connection emerged and led to our first Canadian program. Our Board member Sarah McDonald had brought forward the idea of a local-to-us program ages ago, because of the need that exists here in Canada. The Board decided we should explore the idea, and we’ve been since doing outreach and evaluating the right way to make an impact.

Executive Director Irene Whittaker-Cumming speaking at Syzygy Toronto in May 2017.

Executive Director Irene Whittaker-Cumming speaking at Syzygy Toronto in May 2017.

Fast forward to this past May. I was speaking at an event in Toronto hosted by Syzygy, an exciting collective that brings together women in community. They talk about a “union of opposites”, and that’s what emerged when I met another woman who is well-versed and active in homelessness efforts in Toronto. Between her locality and my expertise in international work, we were indeed a union of opposites.

This union led to Mother Nature Partnership’s first Canadian program, which came to life in October.

We were compelled to work here in Canada because we are grounded in a feminist approach that is about intersections and connection, and one that firmly rejects patriarchal dichotomies (such as man versus woman, human versus animal, and so forth). This false story we’ve all been told of “here versus there” in regards to international development versus “our own backyard” diminishes compassion, and the natural impulse of people to feel a shared humanity.

Guests line up for hours to access the services under one roof at Homeless Connect Toronto.

Guests line up for hours to access the services under one roof at Homeless Connect Toronto.

Shared humanity tells us that the need exists here in Canada. The stats tell us the same thing. In 2016, 27% of Canada’s homeless population was made up of women. And that doesn’t include the hidden populations of women that experts suspect exist, but aren’t counted because they live in precarious or temporary conditions. For women who menstruate, getting their period each month can be an additional hardship that leaves them searching for free supplies or using makeshift materials. (Interested in more info? Read about it in the Toronto Star and VICE.)

Menstrual Kits

We were providing – big surprise – menstrual supplies and resources! We met hundreds of women, and provided 100 women with menstrual kits that included a choice of reusable menstrual cups or environmentally-friendly disposable pads or tampons, new underwear, and helpful resources. Our resources included a selection of handouts with information on menstruation, and the use and care of menstrual cups.

Menstrual Kits with contentsWe also developed and circulated an original MNP resource on where to access free menstrual supplies at Toronto shelters and drop-ins – to our knowledge, this doesn’t exist yet in one central resource, and we are proud to have researched and created it. We had in-depth conversations with guests about feminism, about taboos around menstruation, and about their lived experiences.

As is our way, we made new connections with shelters and drop-ins who loved our work and expressed need for a Mother Nature Partnership program with the women they serve. (Stay tuned for exciting developments!)

Board Member Jessica RileyI left the day with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. For the women we interacted with, for the serendipitous syzygetic connection that led to this day, for the opportunity to do such rewarding and powerful work. Women experiencing homeless expressed joy at the offering of free underwear, often asking for an extra pair. They shared their need for menstrual supplies and their gratitude for the offering. Often, women took a kit for their daughter or friend. The menstrual cup was particularly enticing to our guests, and this reinforces our conviction in reusable menstrual supplies as an accessible and earth-friendly solution.

Every. Single. Menstrual. Kit. Found a home.

Of course, there is more need – and there are more solutions. We have some of those solutions, and need help to provide them. You can be a part of it by donating directly to our work to make it a reality. We are small and mighty, and as a volunteer-run organization all funds go straight to the impact. As a donor, you can choose whether the funds go directly to our Cameroon or Canada program – or to greatest need.

Because regardless of “here or there”, we can rise above that narrative. Instead we can focus on our shared humanity, and the partnerships that make good things transpire where injustice once stood.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.



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.


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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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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.


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.