A girl’s period should not be an obstacle to education

During my time consulting for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), I had the privilege of working with Neema Namadamu, the founder of Maman Shujaa, an organization that uses digital media to broadcast the voices of women peacemakers from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Ms. Namadamu is involved in other endeavors as well, including piloting the Girl Ambassadors for Peace (GA4P) program in DRC with GNWP. She is a tireless advocate for women’s rights, the rights of the disabled, for her community and for the environment. She advocates for people’s rights around the world and often speaks on panels at the United Nations in New York and at conferences globally.

Recently, while promoting a new film that she appears in, Merci Congo, by Paul Freedman, she provided updates on programs at Maman Shujaa in Bukavu, South Kivu (DRC), including the GA4P program.

GNWP’s Girl Ambassadors are educated young women who undergo training on how to conduct literacy education, as well as learning about leadership, and the principles of UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325 and 1820.While the GA4P program has a core curriculum it also allows for additional activities to be adapted for each country or regionally inside of a country in order to focus on the most relevant issues to the community. For example, the activities of the Girl Ambassadors in one community might focus on public events for World Literacy Day and World Day of Peace, while another would focus on involvement in radio broadcasts and PSAs to promote women’s empowerment and peacebuilding.

One of the main objectives of the GA4P program is to raise literacy rates of girls and young women in rural communities where girls are often marginalized and receive little to no education. After the program had been implemented, Ms. Namadamu identified another often-overlooked obstacle to girl’s education that in most developed countries would not prohibit girls from attending school — menstruation.

Because of cultural traditions, rural women in DRC often have a difficult time discussing menstruation with their daughters, creating a lack of awareness about the importance of hygiene and health care. Most girls do not understand the how’s and why’s of hygiene products. Moreover, women and girls in some developing countries do not have access to basic feminine hygiene products such as sanitary napkins and tampons, or reusable sanitary pads. If they do have access, the store might be too far to travel to regularly or the products are too expensive to purchase; relegating girls to use fabric from old clothing in poor condition, or cornhusks, newspaper, mattress stuffing and leaves. When girls start their periods at school, there isn’t a nurse or anyone to explain what is happening to them. In many cases at home they are told that they are now a woman and ready for marriage, which signals an end to their education.  If the girl returns to school, she is often teased by the boys causing feelings of self-consciousness and low self-esteem.  In DRC, a girl’s period often disrupts daily activities with some girls missing four to five days of school per month.

In response, Ms. Namadamu started the Keep Congolese Girls in School program in Itombwe, Eastern DRC, and held fundraisers in Europe and the United States to send three of the Girl Ambassadors to a four-week training in Kampala, Uganda at Days for Girls Uganda. The young women learned how to construct and sew “The Days for Girls Menstrual Hygiene kit (DfG kit),” and also how to make soap in order to clean the reusable sanitary napkins. The washable kit includes two shields, eight reusable liners, a cloth bag to carry the kit, and costs approximately $5.00 to produce one kit.

The Girl Ambassadors initially made 300 kits and conducted training in Itombwe on how to make and use the kits, along with the importance of hygiene. The young women made a second run of 750 kits, as well as collecting 600 bras for distribution.

Menstruating is a normal function of womanhood and in most Western countries, it is not an obstacle to girls attending school. This is a preventable issue that should not continue to be an obstacle to girl’s education. Programs such as Keep Congolese Girls in School fills a gap that has been overlooked for some time and provides an inexpensive solution that focuses on knowledge sharing, training and use of accessible materials. The project has also created employment for young women in the region.

Programs such as Keep Congolese Girls in School would be an excellent component of the GA4P program in South Sudan and other countries where girls struggle to attend and remain in school. Hopefully GNWP will be able to pursue this project with the GA4P in South Sudan, where menstruation is also an obstacle to a girl’s education.

For more about Neema Namadamu and the Keep Congolese Girls in School program click on the link to watch this interview with Neema by Catherine Gray of 360 Karma for the You Go Girl series.

Donations for the Keep Congolese Girls in School program or other Maman Shujaa programs can be made at: https://herowomenrising.networkforgood.com/.