03/23/2017 02:02 EDT | Updated 03/23/2017 02:02 EDT

The Unheard Voices Of Tanzanian Girls With Disabilities Breaking The Menstrual Taboo

In Tanga, as in much of East Africa, there is a strict culture of silence surrounding menstruation. It is not spoken about. For girls with disabilities, the taboo compounds their issues, because they are not always capable of understanding exactly what menstruation is, or able to manage it independently.

Co-Authored by Jennifer Rubli. Research Coordinator, Femme International

On the day that newly-elected President Trump re-enacted the global gag rule, and deprived millions of women around the world not only of access to safe abortions, but of the right to make their own choices and receive reproductive health education, I was in Tanga, a coastal region of Tanzania, East Africa.

I was sitting with seven adolescent girls with various physical and intellectual disabilities, talking about how they manage their periods, and the barriers they face every single month.

I was sitting there listening as, for the first time, they were allowed to talk about this strange and burdensome thing that happens to them, they were allowed to ask questions, they were allowed to give voice to their struggles and confusion.

I was sitting there thinking how badly I wish those seven powerful and unaware men could be with me in that hot, stuffy room, because it was impossible to be there and not come out of it moved beyond belief, and utterly determined to do something, anything, that will make it better.

In Tanga, as in much of East Africa, there is a strict culture of silence surrounding menstruation. It is not spoken about. And it is the epitome of shame and humiliation for someone to know that a girl is menstruating, especially if it is a man.

For girls with disabilities, the taboo compounds their issues, because they are not always capable of understanding exactly what menstruation is, or able to manage it independently. They understand the shame, but not the reason for it. They understand they're not supposed to talk about it, but they also have to tell somebody they're menstruating.

Girls with disabilities are subject to double discrimination, as they grapple both with being female, and having a disability. Because of this, they are even less likely to be able to access services.

The girls I spoke with were like any other adolescent girl I've met. They go through puberty, they notice boys, they are insecure and want to fit in. But their disabilities exclude them from everyday social situations where they might benefit from peer support in the development of social skills. They are more likely to be victims of abuse, stemming from their lack of socialization and desire to be accepted and included, and therefore are more likely to suffer the consequences of early pregnancy. And thus, the cycle of shame and exclusion and discrimination continues.

It is tradition in Tanga that when a girl gets her first period, she is sent to what is called a Kungwi, a female elder who passes on traditional information to young girls. Kungwis are often the ones who teach girls about puberty and menstruation and everything important to being a woman. It sounds great. But in reality, kungwis have no formal training, and rarely know much more than the girls themselves. As a result, they pass on the culture of shame silence to the next generation. Some of these women are even abusive, and punish the girls severely when they don't learn quickly enough; because of their disability, it may be harder for them to understand. Some Kungwis teach nothing more than sex positions and how to be with a man, reinforcing the popular belief that menstruation marks the sexual maturity of a girl, and signifies her as ready to be married.

One of the many myths I came across in the area is that menstruating girls are not allowed to cross a crossroad or intersection. A physician explained that this came from wanting to keep girls close to home, keep them safe. In reality, it means a menstruating girl or woman is restricted to her house. If she needs water, if she needs food, if her child at school needs her, if she needs a help, she is unable to get it. She is stuck, maybe alone, and often scared.

A girl's first period can be a little of scary, even if you are prepared for it. Imagine suddenly finding your underwear filled with blood, and having no idea what is happening to you? And with your disability, you may not have the mobility to get someone, or the capacity to tell somebody what is happening.

The girls I interviewed spoke of desperately wanting to know what menstruation was before its onset, and how to predict when it was going to start, because suddenly seeing the blood in their underwear, completely unprepared, caused them to panic. And in their panic, they might run into the street and be hit by a car or very hurt somehow, one participant worried.

It was obvious to me that these young girls had so much more to say, and so many more experiences to share with the world. The more time we had together, the more their confidence grew and the words began to flow. Their body language changed as they realised they were being listened to. Their voices grew strong, and the confusion and frustration began to show through as they expressed their discontent with the status quo.

Experiences like this change people, for good. I was lucky enough to be granted a glimpse into the unjust world these girls face every month, every day, and that sort of trust comes with a responsibility - to share, to act, to do something about it.

Women and girls with disabilities are desperately under-represented in menstrual health management (MHM) programming and interventions. The need for education, and research, is great, and my conversations in Tanga only confirmed what I already believed - breaking the menstrual taboo is critical in the fight for gender equality.

Femme International is an NGO based in Tanzania that delivers essential reproductive health education to women and girls, and is dedicated to breaking the menstrual taboo for all women. The Feminine Health Empowerment Program teaches girls (and boys!) how their bodies work, what the menstrual cycle is, and how to make safe and healthy choices for themselves. Along with educational workshops, Femme distributes reusable menstrual products to ensure girls have access to safe and sustainable tools.

This year, Femme will be partnering with Youth with Disabilities Community Program (YDCP), an organisation in Tanga that provides services and life skills training to youth with disabilities, to bring the Feminine Health Empowerment Program to girls with disabilities, as well as providing training courses and sensitization for parents, the traditional Kungwis, parents and community leaders.

You can support this project with a donation here.

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