Day: May 4, 2015

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Period Shaming

  • May, 04, 2015

I vividly remember when I started my periods and the time leading up to it; I had little information about my body as you can imagine a young 12 year old primary school girl. But I remember learning about it in class with a classroom half full of boys and all the male teacher said was when girls get to a certain stage they start bleeding and they bleed every month. This lesson was a nightmare for the girls in that class as you can imagine and fun for the boys. What followed were weeks on end of boys teasing and making fun of us about periods, about when we were going to start, how they will know each month when we are on our periods, and how we cannot hide it because our hands get soft and all that. I was shocked at how much they knew about my body and ashamed at the same time of myself, for knowing so little about my own body. So when I finally started my periods my mum, like many mothers in my society, invited one of her older friends to come ‘talk to me’ and this old lady delivered the same message which am sure most Malawian girls are familiar with. She said: “Don’t play with boys” “Now you are a woman, you will get pregnant” “Hide it from your father” “Don’t cook this, don’t touch that” and the worst, scary thing this woman did was to lie to me that my father should never see my period blood or else he will go blind. Imagine being 12 years old and being burdened with this task of having the ability to make your own father blind simply from a normal body function you have no control over. This stranger all of a sudden taught me how to behave in my own house and with my own father. There was so much emphasis on how my relationship with my father had to change as I was “different” now. All this information could not be digested by my little 12 year old immature brain. But I adjusted. I changed.

An image from Google

I remembered all this as I was doing a research for a topic on period shaming for a weekly twitter conversation I host. I had never heard the term before and during my research I stumbled upon The Period Poem, this poem was written by Dominique Christina a performance artist and activist who has a 13-year-old daughter. The poem is a response to tweets shaming menstruation which was sent by a young boy stating that he dumped his girlfriend because she had started her period while they were having sex. Dominique’s daughter sent her a text of the tweets. The poem is also dedicated to her daughter whom she threw a period party for when she started menstruating and all invited guests wore red, the house was decorated in red, and all the food and drinks were red. All red everything!

The poem is powerful, intense and profound, and speaks even louder on issues that have been present from way back in history of how women are shamed, embarrassed and made to feel awkward about a natural body function they have no control over, something as natural as breathing. A monthly reminder of the power a women’s body has to recreate and give life and yet still in the 21st century period shaming exists. Period shaming does not only exist in my society or the most rural villages in Africa it cuts across borders, religion, race and color. The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some tribes are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods and there are health issues connected to this, like infections caused by using dirty rags. There is a story of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it, the subsequent infection meant her uterus had to be removed when she was 13.

Lately there have been talks in the girls’ education discourse of the impact menstruation has on girls absenteeism at school and consequently dropping out. There is no doubt that menstruation is associated with numerous physical, socio-cultural, and economic challenges for school age girls and young women in the developing world. Among them are the physical discomforts and inconveniences of menstruation, ranging from cramps to headaches, lack of access to adequate sanitary materials and toilets on school grounds, and limited information of menstruation, which can lead to shame. Poverty plays an important role as well, as most girls cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. A couple of weeks ago UNICEF with funding from DFID under one of their WASH projects in Salima officially opened the new toilets they built at Yambe and Mkwero community day secondary schools, the project aims to improve sanitation at schools by constructing 3 toilets per school: one for girls, one for boys and the other one  for staff members. The cost of one toilet is approximately MK15 million ($34,000).


Outside image of one of the toilets constructed by UNICEF in Salima, Malawi


An inside image of the toilet in at one of the schools in Salima, Malawi






























But in constructing girls’ only toilets in public schools are we not as programmers perpetuating period shaming, if it is a natural body function for girls and the boys at school know this too well from their Biology class, why then do we feel the need to exclude girls and make them have their own toilet? If it is a normal body function they have no control over WHY the need to hide them and add on to the shame and guilt that society is already subjecting them to. The Population Council conducted a survey in Malawi to find out the connection between girls’ absenteeism and menstruation; the findings showed that nearly one-third of female students reported missing at least one day of school during their previous menstrual period. However, the data indicate that menstruation accounts for only a small proportion of all female absenteeism. The lack of a gender gap in overall absenteeism underscores this finding. The study’s authors interpret the results of their research as suggesting that absenteeism due to menstruation does not stem primarily from school environment (e.g., cleanliness and privacy of toilets). Findings clearly show, however, that factors associated with girls’ home environments can be significantly associated with lower likelihood of absence during the last menstrual period. These include co-residence with older women (especially a grandmother) and the amount of time girls are able to study at home, which is partly related to parental support and encouragement. Based on these observations, the authors conclude that adolescent girls’ school attendance is unlikely to increase substantially through the improvement of toilet facilities or provision of sanitary supplies.

Tackling the issue of period shaming should begin at home. It is after all a family issue: that is where culture and tradition are deeply rooted and manifest. It is about fathers, brothers, uncles and all men in the house being part of the period talk with the girl child; and not leaving it as another task for the mother and women in the house. As a little girl I would have loved  for my father to have been part of my period talk, in shunning away he was the first person that subjected me to period shaming and made me feel dirty for being a woman. I know it is a far fetched dream but imagine boys and young men being part of this and growing up in a culture where they are taught to appreciate and respect women’s bodies. At an early age this would have such a great impact on how they grow up as husbands and fathers and maybe we would not even struggle with male involvement in women’s reproductive health issues after all.


Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/29/opinion/the-taboo-of-menstruation.html?_r=2&



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The Importance of Play

  • May, 04, 2015

A couple months into my fellowship, I realized that I felt far away from the people that I’m here to serve. Working at an organization that doesn’t take part in direct service, it was difficult to feel like I was contributing to the issues I saw every day in Boston. Volunteering gave me a great opportunity to connect with my new community and the global health work I was doing in my placement. I’ve always enjoyed working with kids and chose to apply to Horizons for Homeless Children, an organization that provides safe play spaces for young homeless children.

Play is an important part of a child’s development. More than 1 in 30 children in the U.S. are homeless each year, and major trauma, like homelessness and extreme poverty, can lead to stress. This stress weakens the child’s developing brain, and can lead to lifelong physical and psychological  problems. Horizons for Homeless Children offers early education centers and play spaces where homeless children can learn, play, and build supportive relationships with staff, teachers, and volunteers. The activities that the children participate in emphasize language and cognitive development.

Prior to becoming a Global Health Corps fellow, I spent several years working with individuals with developmental disabilities. Volunteering at Horizons for Homeless Children was a perfect fit for my background. I was also very moved by a Horizons staff member’s story. While working as a case worker at a homeless shelter, she met a mother who kept her child by in a car seat at all times. As a result of limited “tummy time”, the baby had difficulty meeting developmental milestones; she was unable to build the strength needed to lift herself up. The mother was not neglecting her child’s needs; she just didn’t have a safe place for her baby to play. A shelter floor is hardly the best place for a baby.

Horizon’s mission and model immediately resonated with me. After several months with the program, I recommend it to others looking for a meaningful volunteer opportunity in Boston. As a PAL (Playspace Activity Leader), I work with another volunteer to provide a fun play environment. I love seeing the joy on the kids’ faces as they play dress up, color, and read together. I’ve always known the importance of play for a child’s development, but now I have a greater appreciation of play beyond volunteering with kids.

Sledding at Mid-year

GHC fellow, Olivier Dusabimana, sledding for the first time at our mid-year retreat.


As adults, we think that we’ve grown out of play. In truth, play is always an important part of our well-being; we just start calling it different things as we get older. Coloring as a child becomes creating art as an adult. Playing ball becomes sport, and playing dress up becomes acting. Play is so important to our ability to work together and learn about our strengths. In fact, companies pay professional development organizations to participate in “team building activities,” which in effect is adult play.

One of my favorite things about our fellowship class is that no one needs an invitation to play. During training at Yale, we quickly started playing soccer, at our U.S. Q1 retreat we played volleyball until it was too dark to see, and at mid-year we went sledding. I’m thankful to have learned the importance of play for myself and others early in my career, and it is something that I will continue to include in my personal life, direct service work, and volunteer work in the future.



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Fishing Stories from Jinja

  • May, 04, 2015

From the horizon, the sun takes time to rise; it is an orangy subdued lighting offering its warmth to the waters of Lake Victoria while chasing the morning mist. Very early, on the shore of Kingfisher Safari Resort, men are busy cleaning and pushing their wooden boats into the waters. While men spend prolonged time fishing in the lake, women fetch water from the lake’s sandy bank. It also offers them a chattering salon when they dive their hands in the water to wash their clothes. They pour back the grey dirty lather and their last concern is their contribution to the degradation of the lake ecosystems.

These ecosystems are the source of the fish that their husbands bring back home. Godfrey Kasadha is one of these fishermen, his friends have teasingly nicknamed him “wamukisa”- the lucky man. This morning, he feels guilty to be late as the sun woke up before him. He is not very optimistic that he’ll have a big catch but his face wears a big smile that lights up his hope.

A fisherman in the middle of Lake Victoria

The boat that Kasadha rides is a wooden boat painted red from his close friend. It is jointed together by pieces of metal that are skillfully nailed in the wood. Inside it, he has a green jerry can smaller than the ones the women use to fetch water within a stone’s throw. Inside the green recipient, he keeps his fishing secret comprising three live moon fishes that serve as bait to the Nile perches that he patiently chases in the warm water.

From his fishing experience, he has learned the wisdom of gratefully accepting the lake’s generosity or its miserliness. He cruelly holes the heads of his bait with different hooks and ties them to a kamba (fishing line) that he releases in the deep calm water of the lake. Lake Victoria’s maximum depth can reach 83 meters. Today, Kasadha uses one of the nine types of hooks that fishermen utilize in his neighborhood. He chose fish-hook number seven because it has a sharp tongue and the Nile perch can never escape from it, and this wamukisa man assures that the number five can catch a crocodile!

As he paddles in this giant tropical lake, the world’s largest, which is two and a half times larger than the size of Rwanda, he careful watches the movements of the live moon fish. In case of attack, the bait will struggle to survive and the fisherman will be ready to trap the perch.

It’s like a seduction game and the perch is like a man who blindly follows and falls under a woman’s charm. But unfortunately for the perch, the spell is broken when it takes the bait.

Even if Kasadha didn’t access higher levels of education, he masters his profession. Moreover, he knows very well the history of the region.

Back in 1906, Jinja was just a fishing village that developed into the industrial heart of Uganda till the late 1970s. Now, the town is the second largest in the country. The name Jinja came from local baganda workers who were employed on the other side of the Nile River, the Basoga side, to break the gigantic stones and clear the land. Each morning, they called each other and said “Let’s go to that Jinja, to that stone” and since then the name Jinja held and represents the capital of the Busoga kingdom.

As Kasadha shares the story of his Jinja, he changes the paddle from left to right and heads for the “real source” of the Nile. Along the way, enyange (egrets) and embata (black swans) are the companions of the fishermen. The panorama in front of him is two tiny islands and some rocks. One of these lands is the kingdom of birds that rest on different vegetation species and have decorated the ground with their whitish droppings; the second is small handcraft businesses sheltered by huts. The rock pile is the “0 degree” stones symbolizing the reference point of the beginning of the Nile River as marked by John H. Speke. From the land, his statute carefully but silently scrutinizes all the visitors of Nile River.

At the source, water comes from underground and spins before flowing to Lake Victoria. Kasadha believes that 30% of the Nile water comes from beneath and the 70% remaining from Lake Victoria.

The fishing continues and Kasadha has not yet caught anything. He looks with envying eyes at others who came earlier than him and who have already caught some perches.

He often checks his kamba but the moon fish are still floating in the water. As he slowly rounds the source, he takes time to admire the comeliness of Jinja. He watches a multicolored small bird with an orange beck. This tiny bird hides constantly in the bushes and it is chance that this wamukisa man sees it. On another branch, a woodland bird is carelessly hanging.

On the Baganda side of the Nile River, monkeys play in the woods while a big black-yellowed lizard (the size of a crocodile baby) stares defiantly at Kasadha, before crawling back in the bushes.

As Kasadha moves forward, he leaves behind him the spinning water and reflects about how fishing has changed his economy. He lost his father so early that he had no other choice than helping his mother to carry agriculture products as a middle man. He could only earn around 4,000 Ugandan shillings ($1.33 USD). Currently, when he is lucky, he can make 200,000 shillings ($66.62 USD) from fishing and other small jobs.

okuvuba kwacyusa oburamu bwangge”- Fishing has changed my life.

It is worth noting that 20% of Uganda is water. In 2010, the country earned $83.3 million from the fishing industry, with the highest peak ever of $143,168 million in 2005. According to the Ugandan Department of Fisheries Resources, in 2011, aquaculture production was 100,000 metric tons and is expected to boost up to 1 million metric tons in this year. At the same time, with this ambition, the department recognizes that the exportation to international markets has recently declined due to falling stocks, overfishing and expansions of regional markets, and of course due to declining catches.

Declining catches is what Kasadha is experiencing this morning. However, he just attributes that drop to the fact that the sun rose before him and to the dry season, as the sun enlightens the waters, allowing the fish to hide more successfully. For him, it’s not the existing negative effects of climate change, overfishing or pollution of the lake. For him, it’s just not the productive season that usually generates cash.

The money that Kasadha gets from his job is spent to support his extended family but also to pay for the tuition fees of his son.

Unlike him, hundreds of other fishermen spoil their earnings with sex workers. While the national HIV+ incidence is only 7%, it reaches around 40% in the fishermen circle. Their hazardous job jeopardizes them to risk their lives in the cloudy waters of Lake Victoria.

They believe in imminent attacks from crocodiles or drowning accidents. Some have fished the corpses of their friends and are afraid that one day, it could be their own corpse that other fishermen will bring back. They earn much more compared to other informal occupations in Uganda but they are the ones whose life expectancy is threatened due to the dangers of the water, but mainly due to their irresponsible behaviors including unprotected sex. Kasadha doesn’t face these threats as he fishes near the water’s edge but he knows very well the dangers of the work.

Lake Victoria is shared by Tanzania (51%), Uganda (43%) and Kenya (6%) with over 30 million people living in its basin, directly or indirectly benefitting from this rich natural resource. This lake is the most important inland fishery production in Africa and this sector employs between one million and 1.5 million nationals in Uganda. As this represents a considerable number of individuals who are exposed, the careless sexual behavior of fishermen constitutes an alarming menace to this industry with an incredible growth potential. In addition, access to government health services is still a challenge for the Jinja municipality.

Another challenge in Jinja is the regulation of fishery activities and the protection of Lake Victoria’s biodiversity. The only restriction imposed to fishermen is the use of the fishing nets and no moral law prevents the women from polluting the lake when they are cleaning their clothes.

Kasadha observes another group of women with an ironic smile. “You see, women’s role is to wash clothes and fetch water. They wait for their husbands’ catches. They can’t fish because once they catch a fish they scream and give jumps. For them, fishing is a joke”. His ironic smile has turned into a proud and loud laughter that shakes his strong shoulders.

For the umpteenth time, Kasadha checks the kamba and decides that he is not blessed today; he is not the wamukisa Kasadha. He takes the moon fish, removes the sharp hook, leaving stains of blood on his grey face and puts it back in the green jerry can. He will keep the bait alive for the next perch fishing. Even if did not catch anything, he always loves to share his boat with tourists and help them discover the wonders of Jinja.

The region’s history and the fishing rides are not the sole treasures that Kasadha shares with people, but also the pride of having the Nile River and Lake Victoria as the chief sources of water for Egypt. Curiously, the same pride extends to miles away in Rwanda where local abasare (fishermen in Kinyarwanda) are convinced they are the primary feeders of the Egyptians. Both convictions are accurate as water from Rwanda flows to Lake Victoria for 6650km (4132 miles) journey to the Mediterranean Sea.

Now it’s around 9:00am and the sun is hotly burning the fisherman’s face. Far in the lake, four boats are still navigating in the lake’s waters while their occupants are more discussing than fishing.

Once, it took a week for Kasadha to catch a fish. Another time with a friend he caught a 60kg perch measuring two meters. The uncertainties, despairs and surprises are part of the fishing stories of Jinja.

Tomorrow morning, Kasadha will take his own boat and use worms to fish tilapia. The favorite tilapia…