The cycle of life
Why menstruation matters to all of us
Menstruation. It’s a big thing in the life of any girl reaching puberty ‒ a visible change in how her body functions. For most girls, regardless of where they were born and where they live, the beginning of menstruation comes with a plethora of feelings and emotions ranging from curiosity to guilt, bafflement to shame, frustration to denial.
Menstruation can ruin a girl's future
But for thousands and thousands of girls growing up in sub-Saharan African countries, menstruation can come with devastating consequences. In some societies, it can be seen as a sign of the girl being ready for marriage and for bearing children. In others it can mean the end of her education. In many countries, girls and women are simply shunned, shut outside of the community during their menstruation because they are seen as impure, dirty, tainted.
In my current home country, Tanzania, menstruation can be devastating to a girls’ future. It can be the thing that stands between her and education. It can cause embarrassment, health problems, ridicule, marginalization. It can mean that she is considered “woman” enough to be married off and to start her own family.
Menstruation, something every single woman in every single country goes through, something as natural and as common as breathing, can literally be the thing that prevents a girl from reaching her full potential and living a healthy, safe and happy life.
Half of daily earnings on sanitary pads
To start with, menstruation is rarely discussed in Tanzania by parents, educators and sometimes even health workers ‒ so for many girls, the start of their menstruation can be a scary, confusing thing. Imagine if it happened to you, and you had no idea what was going on with your body, especially since usually bleeding is considered a sign of injury. Many school facilities in East Africa lack proper latrines and washing facilities, and even when such facilities exist, they are often shared by boys and girls and lack clean water and trash bins.
Girls at one of The Purple Box's partner schools in Arusha, Tanzania.
This means that many girls don’t want to attend school during their menstruation, because they don’t have safe, private facilities where to clean up and change their pads ‒ which brings us to another major challenge, which is the lack of sanitary pads. According to Femme International, an organization that works directly with these issues in East Africa, in Kenya a package of sanitary pads costs around 65 Kenyan shillings (about 0.60 euros), which can be half of a daily salary for many unskilled day laborers.
Imagine spending half of your daily earnings on sanitary pads, and whether, in that situation, you wouldn’t rather spend the money on something else, like food or cooking oil. This means that thousands of girls in these countries do not have access to sanitary pads, and often use unsanitary and unhygienic rags and self-made pads which are not only uncomfortable and inefficient, but can also lead to many health problems, such as infections.
The Purple Box ‒ making a difference pad by pad
Doesn’t sound fair, does it?
It’s not ‒ but luckily, there are many great organizations and individuals working on tackling some of these challenges. One of them is a new organization here in Arusha, Tanzania, called The Purple Box, which is basically the brainchild of one dedicated, passionate and inspiring young woman, Naureen Gamdust.
Naureen graduated from high school in Arusha in 2015, but had to take a gap year because of not having funding to continue directly to a university. Having grown up in Tanzania, she was acutely aware of the many challenges young girls face here ‒ and wanted to find a way to give back, to help, and to spend her gap year in a productive way. In July 2015, The Purple Box was born ‒ and it’s such a simple and yet life changing idea that one can’t but wonder why no one has done it before.
Naureen getting ready to distribute menstrual pads to girls.
The Purple Box is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a purple colored box, which Naureen places in supermarkets around Arusha ‒ currently they are in seven stores in the city ‒ and as people are shopping for their groceries, they can buy an extra pack or two of sanitary pads, place them in the box, and Naureen then delivers the pads to two public schools in the region to girls who otherwise would not have access to pads. The girls who receive the pads are between the ages of 12 and 18, and before this they were using things like newspaper, old pieces of cloth and dirty rags as pads.
Naureen told me that the biggest motivation behind The Purple Box was to help girls stay in school and to help prevent unwanted pregnancy: Naureen explains that some girls actually fall into engaging in transactional sex with older men to get enough money to buy pads for themselves.
In terms of staying in school, girls would often skip classes during their periods because of shame and fear, and quickly fall behind. Imagine if you had to attend school during your menstruation without having a reliable pad ‒ or a clean and private bathroom ‒ and whether you’d rather stay home.
The color of the box wasn’t random either. Naureen told me that not only is purple her favorite color, but it’s also the color of royalty, and she felt it was a strong, empowering color to symbolize empowering the girls to be able to take more control over their lives and bodies. Having been raised by a single mother, Naureen said she felt like she wanted to do something to specifically give back to girls and women. Her mom, unsurprisingly, has been very proud of Naureen and is her biggest champion and supporter.
Less school dropouts
Getting stores to accept the box wasn’t an entirely easy task, even though it seems like something that would be a win-win for Naureen and the store ‒ the store gets the profit from selling more pads, and Naureen gets the pads that are donated by the shoppers. Despite this, a couple of stores declined to take the box, either thinking it would confuse shoppers or claiming it would be too hard for them to manage it.
The Purple Box - the box which Naureen places in super markets and in which people can donate packs of menstrual pads.
Additionally, finding partner schools didn’t come without challenges. Two schools Naureen approached declined to work with her, saying it would be too complicated to deal with parents, explaining what was happening to the girls, and managing with the logistics of the project.
Naureen did find two schools to partner with, but had to get permission from the Arusha town council to distribute the pads at the schools. She had to write a long letter explaining her project, the purpose and aim, how it was going to work and why she was doing it. After finding out no one at Town Council had read the letter, Naureen went to a Council meeting and sat there waiting for five hours for someone to finally read her letter. Permission was eventually given ‒ but working with authorities has been slow and challenging.
Now, the biggest challenge is to motivate people to continue to donate. Naureen told me that in the beginning, once the word about The Purple Box got out, the boxes were filled with pads every time she went to collect them, but the number of donations has gone drastically down.
She hopes to keep increasing the number of girls she is reaching, but without a steady stream of donations she won’t be able to. Many local newspapers have written about her, and the Facebook page of The Purple Box has over 1200 likes and has gained a lot of attention. But Naureen is also looking into other ways of getting the word out about her organization and the important work she is doing.
According to the teachers in her partner schools, Naureen’s work is already making a difference. Girls are missing school less and their performance is showing improvement ‒ probably because they can now focus on their studies every day of school, instead of having to skip school or be distracted because of their menstruation.
Such a simple, fairly low-cost project is making a huge difference in the lives of young girls in Tanzania. And Naureen, at age 19, is an inspirational example of the power of one passionate and dedicated person.
Celebrate the cycle of life
Saturday the 20th of May is International Menstrual Hygiene Day, which aims to bring more global attention to the importance of menstrual hygiene management for girls’ health, well-being and empowerment. This year’s theme is “#MenstruationMatters, To Everyone, Everywhere”.
Naureen with girls who are receiving pads through The Purple Box.
The theme aims to highlight the fact that talking about menstruation and breaking taboos and myths that still surround this perfectly normal and natural issue is important not only to girls and women, but also to men and boys. It’s also an important issue for sexual minorities, for trans-people, for disabled people ‒ and it underpins so many other basic rights, such as health, education, right to safety and security, to name a few.
Many authorities, institutions and individuals still fail to recognize what a huge impact this normal, monthly occurrence has on girls’ lives all over the developing world, and how small and often very low-cost interventions can have a huge impact on the lives and future of girls and their families.
At the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, Kiran Gandhi, who made international headlines after having run the London marathon while on her period without a pad, gave a powerful speech about the importance of ending the stigma and marginalization still associated with menstruating, not only in developing countries but everywhere in the world. Gandhi said:
“Menstruation and periods are the foundation of the human race. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that cycle. This is something that should not be talked about with disgust.”
So let’s start breaking down the stigma and barriers together. Naureen, who at age 19 has done more for improving girls’ lives through menstrual hygiene management than most people do in a lifetime, is an inspiring example of how much difference one person’s small actions can make. She is making a difference for girls in Tanzania every day ‒ so perhaps the rest of us can join the cause as well. After all, this is really about the cycle of life. If that doesn’t warrant our respect and attention, I don’t know what does.
Emma Saloranta Winiecki
Emma Saloranta Winiecki is a native of Finland who has lived and worked in Finland, United States, Kenya, Brazil, India and Tanzania on issues related to child rights, child protection and international development, and in the recent years has focused her career on gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights. Currently she works as the Communications Director for Girls' Globe, an online magazine and global network for the health, rights and empowerment of girls and women. She is also the co-founder and co-host of The Mom Pod, a podcast focused on maternal and newborn health and global motherhood. She lives in Arusha, Tanzania with her husband and son.
Photos courtesy of The Purple Box, used with permission.
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