A group of girls burst into a fit of hysterical giggles with hands covering their faces as we ask them to draw pictures of what it means to them when their mother or auntie tells them they are now ‘a big girl or a woman’. We are travelling around Babati, Tanzania hearing and listening to the experiences and stories of young girls, some not menstruating yet, to women who have entered menopause. For almost 10 years, The Livingstone Tanzania Trust (LTT) has been working to improve the lives of communities in Babati, and accessible, safe learning spaces - education has been one of their central pillars. With the improvements LTT makes to the physical learning spaces - from the classrooms to the washrooms - school for many children is becoming a haven of learning.
Now, ten years on, one of LTT’s greatest challenges is to ensure that the spaces are not only physically conducive but will support young girls emotionally through puberty and menstruation so that they stay in school. Interviewing just under 400 girls and women, teachers instructed in health, and government appointed education officers, our analysis is underway.
Talking to women working in the mndaa (informal open market for second-hand goods) to sitting in classrooms and even outside on the grass, our discussions ranged from the deeply intimate of washing and bathing rituals during their periods to talking about sacrosanct cultural practices ranging from being cursed by witches to experiences of female genital mutilation. One of their stories included:
"At the college, there are dustbins where they kept the used pads - dog come drop it then take the pads. They believe some dogs are not real dogs, they are people. So because there are so many (dogs) at the college, and everybody has their beliefs, some will use the pads (blood) for business as 'sangomas' (witch doctors) directs them"
School latrines and having access to water and the physical space and privacy to change pads or rags using squat toilets was an in-depth part of the conversation. It was only during these interviews that the girls shared their more intimate experiences of using school latrines - of being embarrassed leaving drops of blood in the toilet and not having water to wash it away to simply having a space to change and dispose of rags. In the ten days we were there, we began immediate improvisations on new toilet facilities we were building in Malangi School to include separate sinks, one for hand washing and one for the option of washing stained clothes in privacy to also incorporating an incinerator attached to the toilet facilities.
While almost all young girls talked about turning to their mother when they first started menstruating, the conversations exclusively centred around what you do when you have your period and words of caution of staying away from boys and men. Experience sharing and questions around sex and using non-traditional materials, like pads, were usually had at a peer-to-peer level. As it is the case everywhere in the world, the financial cost of menstrual products are high. While almost all those we spoke to used a combination of rags and/or pads, the experiences of girls and women in more rural parts of Babati brought to light other materials used to ‘capture’ blood flow - from using dried corn cobs to small pieces of dried banana leaves. In some instances, in boarding schools, girls will cut away at pieces of their foam mattresses or cut strips of their school uniforms to act as absorbent material. The use of pads, while largely preferred by girls, held misconceptions that sanitary towels can cause cancer and ‘go out of date’.
Conversations with adult women about menopause were particularly insightful, as many women held beliefs that they could still get pregnant, even though they had not had a period for over a year. A combination of mis- and incomplete information, often heard as ‘old wives tales’ has fostered this understanding.
At this early stage of our analysis of the baseline study, we have much work to do to before conceiving fully what an education program would look like and whether offering support to set up a sanitary towel business would make sense. Collaboratively with the girls, women, schools and education officials we will be continuing this discussion to identify ways we can support them - not just as they start their reproductive cycles, but straight through to menopause.
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