My 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.
The 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.
The 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.