In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28th, I've asked my dear friend Emily Burnett to share her heart behind bringing education, empowerment, and practical menstrual hygiene solutions to girls in need.
Before I moved overseas, I don't remember giving thought to how women in developing countries manage their menstrual cycles. Buying tampons and pads seemed like a basic necessity, a non-negotiable, never given a second thought. I hadn't the slightest idea that, for millions of women and girls around the world, sanitary products are often an unaffordable luxury or altogether inaccessible.
With my host family in Cote d'Ivoire
But at twenty-one years old, I moved from Wisconsin to Cote d’Ivoire and my worldview began to change. I joined an organization called Journey Corps and moved into a host family in a small Ivorian village. There were always at least twelve people under our roof: dad, mom, their three little boys, five teenage nieces, a couple of nephews, and me. The girls became my dearest companions and cultural guides. Over the course of eight months, they taught me the way of life for young, unmarried women in Cote d’Ivoire, a life so different from my own.
Before long I noticed that my sisters didn’t buy sanitary products. Pads were available at some of the little wood-framed shops, but my sisters couldn’t afford them. In fact very few women at all could afford them. So instead they used old cloths, mattress foam, leaves, or straw. These materials led to infections and were ineffective during times of heavy flow, so the girls sometimes skipped school a couple days each month. Their school also wasn’t equipped with clean, private facilities or running water, making it even more difficult for girls to go to class during their periods. Three of my sisters failed their final exams and did not advance to the next grade. Thankfully they had a supportive family who encouraged them to try again. But it was a continuous struggle to keep up with their coursework. After eight months with my host family, I had the chance to travel to a handful of other countries in West Africa, where I heard the same story again and again. It was humbling to acknowledge that my experience of managing menstruation, one that didn’t interrupt my normal life or cause serious health issues, was unimaginable for so many women and girls. I couldn’t ignore this reality.
Fast forward a few years and today I live in South Africa, where I’ve networked with two local organizations that exist to break down the taboo around menstruation and bring sustainable solutions to adolescent girls. Both organizations have the word dignity in their names, which I find brilliant, because at the end of the day, that is precisely what girls need. Without hygienic, effective menstrual care products, girls are hindered from pursuing their dreams and knowing their value as young women in society. I want to introduce you to these organizations:
Project Dignity: Founded by Sue Barnes, this organization distributes packs of washable, 100% cotton panties and pads to high school girls in rural communities. This product is designed to last for five years. Project Dignity hopes to end school absenteeism due to menstruation. With 32,000 packs given out so far, they’re well on their way to changing the future of South Africa by keeping girls in school and giving them a chance to pursue their dreams.
Girls at a Project Dignity presentation
Dignity Campaign: This organization’s goal is to empower girls with knowledge about their value and identity as young women in their societies. Dignity Campaign facilitators host workshops for small groups of girls, creating a safe place for discussion about femininity, relationships, menstruation, sex, social pressures, and a variety of other topics. Every girl also leaves the workshop with either a set of washable cloth pads or silicone menstrual cup.
These two organizations have slightly different missions but the same end goal. I love that Project Dignity wants to reach as many girls as possible – distributing thousands of sustainable pads to change the absentee and drop out rates of high school girls. And, it’s beautiful that Dignity Campaign is aiming for a deep cultural change by weeding out lies and speaking truth with one girl at a time. My hope is to partner with both organizations in order to serve girls in my community. With Project Dignity I hope to follow-up with the schools where pads have been distributed to see what impact it has had. And, with the Dignity Campaign, I would like attend their facilitators training in September so that I can host workshops for girls around my city.
Just around the corner on May 28th is Menstrual Hygiene Day. According to this website, Menstrual Hygiene Day “will help to break the silence and build awareness about the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential.” If you want to be part, here are a few ideas for you!
1. Keep learning about the realities faced by real girls and women around the world and develop a sense of compassion that will motivate you to act.
2. Start Conversations with your friends and family about some of the stigmas around menstruation in your own community. Discuss ways that you can help change negative ideas and turn shame into appreciation and celebration of the natural, beautiful cycle our bodies go through.
3. Partner with people and organizations that are helping girls and women find their innate value, dignity, and purpose. (If you feel led to partner with me, I’d be happy to tell you how! Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by donating to Matthew and Emily Burnett here)
Someday, I hope to go back to Cote d’Ivoire and bring some sustainable solutions to girls in the village I lived in for eight months. It’s painful to know that my host sisters probably still don’t have any other option but to use unhygienic materials during their periods, and menstruation is most likely still a taboo topic in their community. But I am grateful for what they taught me about life as a young woman in rural Africa. Those lessons will never leave, but rather continue to spur me on to love the women and girls around me so that they will know their value and beautiful place in this world.
Recent event with Project Dignity
Thank you again to the wonderful Emily Burnett for sharing her experiences in this inspiring post! If this has spurred you on to action in helping girls around the world, please share your questions or comments below!