I first got my period when I was 13 and on a beach holiday with my family. I knew what it was – I have a Mum who pre-warned, pre-prepped and pre-stocked my bag AND I knew I could speak to her if I needed to. But I was devastated. I was certain life as I knew it was over. I'd never be able to wear swimmers again (let alone actually swim!), and I'd never felt so isolated from my brothers.
But what if it didn't happen like that?
What if I didn't know what my period was? What if my friends and family would expect me to drop out of school? What if there were no pads or tampons and it was rumoured that sanitary pads caused infertility anyway? What if I was too afraid to tell anyone because they might think I'd had sex with a man? Or " at the tender age of 13 " what if men now thought I was READY to have sex?
New research from One Girl's LaunchPad Program in Sierra Leone has revealed that these myths are real and commonplace. And that a lack of access to safe and dignified periods is a key barrier preventing girls from going to school along with early pregnancy, early marriage and a lack of access to proper toilet facilities, among others.
Most women in Sierra Leone don't have a hygienic way of managing their period; resorting to makeshift materials like old cloth and kitchen sponges. And without access to clean water, washing is often done in open sources that are full of bacteria, and then dried indoors out of the sun due to cultural taboos around menstrual blood. Hot and humid inside, the materials rarely dry out, and women have to wear damp cloth; a breeding ground for disease, painful rashes, sores, and bruising. Studies have shown that girls can lose weeks of school per year as a result of these problems!
Enter: LaunchPad. One Girl have specifically designed a program to increase community knowledge and reduce taboos around menstrual health and hygiene – and we're having some amazing results!
Our research has found that 85% of LaunchPad members (who sell pads subsidised by One Girl) had at some point sold pads to men, suggesting a broader shift in community attitudes around who is aware of, responsible for and involved in menstrual hygiene management. Women have also reported reduced feelings of shame or embarrassment when they have their periods around their husbands.
"Before when we were using the pieces [pieces of old clothing and rags eg] it gives us wounds and rashes and infection, but now when we are using the pads we are okay and free." – Participant.
With this training, and with access to products, there is no reason why a girl would need to dropout of school simply due to her period. We know educating girls is one of the most powerful forces for change in the world (Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter 2019) and is also one of the most effective ways to combat climate change, globally (Drawdown project 2018).
This International Women's Day, I'm calling on everyone to reflect upon your own experiences, or those of your mothers, sisters and daughters. Think about them in the context of what our sisters in Sierra Leone and Uganda have to overcome every day, and help us break down the taboos around menstruation to make it safe and dignified for women everywhere. Period.
- Sarah Ireland, CEO, One Girl.
Question: What is One Girl?
Sarah Ireland: One Girl is a Melbourne-based not-for-profit that harnesses the power of education to drive change for girls and their communities! Currently, there are more than 130 million girls around the world who don't have access to an education. We are working in Sierra Leone and Uganda – two of the toughest countries to be born a girl – to help girls and young women tackle the barriers they face in accessing a safe and quality education, and that is stopping them from succeeding in and out of the classroom.
Our girl-focused programs look at the main barriers that are preventing girls from having the same access to school as boys, such as early marriage, early pregnancy, poverty, and discriminatory cultural and gender norms.
Denying girls the chance to go to school not only negatively impacts that particular girl, but has enormous implications for her family, her community and her entire nation. Children born to mothers younger than 18 are at a higher risk of dying by the age of five, and of being malnourished. Through lower wages in adulthood and higher fertility over their lifetime, a lack of (or lower level of) education for girls leads to more households living in poverty. It also results in higher population growth given the impact on fertility rates.
BUT we know that when you educate a girl, everything changes:
She'll be healthier, marry later, have children when she chooses to, earn more money, and invest more of that money back into her family.
A child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5.
If all girls were educated, it would stop 2 out of 3 child marriages.
Educating girls is one of the most effective ways of fighting climate change because educated women will have fewer children.
For every extra year a girl stays in school her income can increase 15-25%
Educated women invest 90% of their income back into their family
Question: Can you tell us about the findings of your latest research report released on International Women's Day?
Sarah Ireland: In countries like Sierra Leone, menstruation is a taboo topic, and there are loads of myths that surround periods. For example, once a girl gets her period she should drop out of school and get married; sanitary pads can cause infertility; when a girl gets her period it means she has started having sex; and when girls get their periods they are now mature and ready to have sex or to become lovers.
I am a mother of a 2-year-old daughter, and I can't imagine telling my daughter that when she gets her period she won't be able to attend school any more. Or that once she gets her period she is now ready for sex, and her primary reason for being is to reproduce. But I know that there are girls around the world who will hear this.
At One Girl, we don't want these myths to hold girls and young women back from reaching their full potential. So we are working with women in Sierra Leone to overcome these misconceptions and give them the knowledge to break down these myths and pave the way for gender equality.
We recently conducted research in Sierra Leone through our LaunchPad project to see what these myths are, and how women are overcoming them. The thing that surprised me most about this report was not just how deeply engrained many of these myths are, but how once women are given knowledge around menstrual hygiene, they are leading discussions with girls, women, men and boys to shift attitudes and set the record straight.
I really love how one woman in the report says: 'It is not hidden anymore, it's simple to talk about it'. To me, that really shows that knowledge is so powerful and is the key to destroying these damaging taboos and myths.
I also really love how these women are sharing what they have learned in our program so widely – going door-to-door, to public places like parks and markets, on the radio, and even traveling to neighbouring communities to make sure that their message is heard by as many people as possible.
And the research showed that it's working! Communities are listening, including the men and boys. More men are buying pads for their wives and daughters, showing that there has been a shift in the stigma attached to having a period.
Question: What surprised you most about this research report?
Sarah Ireland: It's so nice to hear about the truly transformative nature of the program as well. For example, women are becoming economically empowered through selling sanitary pads, and they are using the majority of this money to ensure that more girls are able to go to school. An amazing example of women supporting women! Women have also said that being part of the program has made them more confident, and they no longer feel embarrassed or ashamed when they get their period.
Question: Can you tell us about the LaunchPad project?
Sarah Ireland: This LaunchPad project is just one of the ways that One Girl is supporting girls and young women in Sierra Leone and Uganda to overcome the barriers that they face in accessing education. Providing access to education isn't a handout – it's simply opening a door that was previously closed and making sure it doesn't hit her on the way through.
Question: How can Australians support One Girl?
Sarah Ireland: One Girl doesn't receive any government funding, so we rely on individuals, businesses and some amazing Trusts and Foundations who share our passion for girls' education, to support us. We make a commitment to girls in Sierra Leone and Uganda that we will support them throughout their entire educational journey, and having consistent funding is so important to allow us to make this commitment. A great way to do this is for individuals to join our Graduation program, which is where they commit to providing a regular donation, giving us the certainty in our commitments to girls in Sierra Leone and Uganda.
Question: What's next, for One Girl?
Sarah Ireland: This year, we want to support even more girls and young women to smash the barriers that are holding them back. One of our values is 'always learning' so we are constantly evaluating our programs and working with girls and young women to see how we can make our programs have an even greater impact. And we have some really exciting plans for 2019 to make this happen, so all I can say is to 'watch this space'!
Question: Can you tell us about the One Girl programs?
Sarah Ireland: Scholarships which puts girls back in the classroom where they belong and gives them everything they need to succeed.
Business Brains, which trains girls in business skills as well as life-skills, to create and support young entrepreneurs so they're better equipped to support themselves after school.
LaunchPad which empowers women and girls with menstrual hygiene knowledge so that something as simple and normal as a period never stops a girl from going to school. Through this program we are also spreading knowledge about sexual and reproductive health and rights, to both girls and boys.
And we work with organisations to make schools safer environments by building school toilets and training students in water, sanitation and better hygiene.
We are also working closely with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Education to support more women to get their teaching qualifications, and become role models for girls sitting in their classrooms.
Interview by Brooke Hunter