girls rights

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.