Menstrual Hygiene Management: A Path To Human Dignity

Some of my favorite moments this year have been unexpected conversations.

Over Easter weekend, I was sitting by the local spring in Kibeho, the rural Rwandan community where Claude and I are serving our fellowship year, when a woman tapped me on the shoulder – Miriwe! Bonjour! Hello! – and sat down beside me.  Meet Christine: a vibrant, excited young woman, close to my own age, her hands in constant motion, a gap-toothed grin across her face.

Christine came to Kibeho as a tourist, one of the many who bussed in to spend the religious holiday in Rwanda’s ‘Holy Land.’  She spoke with a lilting, eloquent French, and broad, sweeping gestures, and soon had me caught up in the stories she spun of her travels and family.   When I told her I was working on a girls’ education and menstrual hygiene program, she leaned over and tapped my shoulder again.

“Oh!  I have a story for you.”

She settled back against the grassy hillside, thumbed my ear as if to say, ‘Listen up, now!’ and began.

“It was time for the new school term and I was talking with my mother.  I was talking to her about the menstruating times at school.  What do I do?”

I leaned forward, intrigued by Christine’s openness on a topic many women find taboo.

“There were so many students.  So few toilets.  It would often be embarrassing.  I came home one day and there was a map of Africa,” she paused, laughing, glancing sideways at me with a ‘you’re-a-girl-so-you’re-in-the-club’ grin, “You know, all over my skirt.  When my mother saw me crying she asked, ‘If you go to school for one more year, will you be President Kagame?’” She shook her head emphatically. “That was the end of my schooling.”

Christine dropped out of school at age fourteen.  She has since gone on to be a successful businesswoman, participating in a tailoring cooperative in the capital, and her cheer is undeniable as she continues to other tales she’s eager to share.  Yet, her story of education curtailed by female physiology is one many girls share.

Girls in surrounding primary and secondary schools march in Kibeho’s celebration of International Women’s Day.

In the mid 1990s, basic education was made tuition-free in Rwanda, and the nation boasts a remarkable 97% percent primary school enrollment rate, the highest primary enrollment rate in Africa for both boys and girls.  However, the development of school infrastructure, such as latrines, to support the growing enrolled population still lags behind and rural schools often have as many as sixty students using one toilet.  As a result, privacy and hygiene are often difficult to attain. Further, many girls lack the education and resources needed to attend school with the security that their bodies are under their understanding and control during menstruation.

To me, all human rights derive from the right to dignity: to be accepted as whole, as you are.  When young women are secluded, made to feel insecure about their bodies, or teased and harassed due to inadequate menstrual hygiene management, this dignity can be difficult to maintain.

This year WASH United inaugurated the first global Menstrual Hygiene Day, on May 28th, with the vision of “Creating a world in which every woman and girl can manage her menstruation in a hygienic way –  wherever she is – in privacy, safety and with dignity.”  Working to break the silence and stigma that often surrounds menstruation, Menstrual Hygiene Day hopes to begin conversations about the benefits proper menstrual hygiene management can have in creating healthier communities, better sanitation, and increasing education access.  While no silver bullet, it’s another step forward for brilliant young women like Christine.

To learn more about Menstrual Hygiene Day – Why did they choose 05/28?  How can you get involved? – check out the event’s homepage.  Be sure to also take a look at current fellow Chelsea Ducharme’s blog on menstrual hygiene and her work with ACODEV’s “AFRIpads for 100 Ugandan Girls” campaign!