Talking about sexual and reproductive health with students is always a little bit awkward, even in the best of situations! Having these discussions within a culture that often considers anything related to reproductive health to be taboo can be particularly challenging -- and incredibly important.
In rural Tanzania, such topics are rarely discussed. The national curriculum includes the topics of menstruation and reproductive health, but these topics are frequently rushed through, or skipped altogether, by uncomfortable teachers in underfunded, overcrowded schools.
Femme International is a Canadian NGO that promotes women's health through education, with a focus on menstrual health and hygiene. Menstruation is a major reason why girls in developing communities miss school or drop out together due to a lack of sanitary resources and the oppressive stigma that surrounds the topic.
Femme's Feminine Health Management Program is sensitive in nature: menstruation is very taboo to discuss, as are issues of sexual health, female anatomy, and even family planning! However, Femme recognizes that having these conversations with young women is critical to keeping them healthy and in school. Girls need to understand their bodies, and understand how to properly take care of themselves.
To get the girls talking, our team of local facilitators work hard to create a safe space within the classroom. It is essential to establish an atmosphere of openness, respect and acceptance, and this is often done by sharing personal stories and experiences in a girls-only environment. In fact, one common question is for the facilitator to describe her own first period. Stories like these always break the ice, and helps everyone loosen up, and laugh. Sharing these stories helps girls realize that menstruation, for example, is a shared experience, and nothing to be ashamed about.
Talking openly and with confidence about these issues puts the girls at ease, and encourages them to contribute to the conversation. And it usually doesn't take long. In only a few minutes, the girls to begin to open up and share their own stories, even begin to ask specific questions about their bodies. Their eagerness shows us just how important it is for these girls to have the chance to talk about these issues, and how excited they are at the opportunity.
For the girls that aren't as confident, an anonymous question bag is passed around. This gives them the chance to ask the sensitive questions they want to, but are too shy to do so out loud. The facilitator collects the bag at the end of the workshop and reads through the questions, often times leading into larger health issues faced by the girls.
While the these workshops focus on reproductive and menstrual health, participants will often bring up related issues that they are experiencing or are confused about. These have included serious topics such as sexual assault, rape and female genital mutilation; to lighter subjects like boyfriends and PMS symptoms. Girls need a safe space to ask these questions, and having a trained facilitator present gives them access to reliable and accurate information.
Conversation and education are powerful tools for affecting lasting change. Femme's programs are committed to using these tools to change the language, and feelings, associated with menstruation and reproductive health from negative to positive. Creating this safe space is essential to helping girls understand their bodies, and using conversation and education to help them feel comfortable and confident.
Photos courtesy of Femme International
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