Simple innovation keeps girls in school, away from child marriage, in DRC
Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo—The mountains of Itombwe are home to some of the rare gorillas of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. An area about the size of Rwanda and Burundi put together, the Itombwe Plateau is one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also home to 23,785 adolescent girls, according to Maman Shujaa, a women’s empowerment organization based in the South Kivu capital of Bukavu. And 85 percent of these girls, who are under 20 years old, says the organization, have children—up to five children each.
The problem often starts when girls drop out of school, which happens for many literally on the day they get their periods. So maybe at 12 years old.
“The girl will go home and the next day she’ll be ashamed to go back [to school],” said Ariane Moza Assumani, 28, a team leader at Maman Shujaa. “She’ll say, ‘Everyone will say I dirtied my clothes.’ And maybe four months later she gets pregnant. No more school.”
Assumani explained that in Itombwe, mothers tell their daughters when they get their periods: “You’re no longer a child. You’re now a real woman. Find a man to marry you.” And a girl of 15 can marry a man of 60, she said. A girl of 18 can marry a man of 80.
Some remain in school once they get their periods but miss up to five days a month because of the bleeding and infections associated with using unclean material to catch the blood, according to Neema Namadamu, head of Maman Shujaa. Girls in many parts of the world, said the U.S.-based advocacy group Days for Girls, “use leaves, mattress stuffing, newspaper, corn husks, rocks, anything they can find.”
Deep gender discrimination in DRC is a huge challenge, as are connected practical deprivations such as a lack of access to clean water and sanitation—and sanitary pads—that would allow girls to receive an education. Access to education in the first place is a right that is hardly enforced for girls: One 2014 government demographic study estimated that less than 6 percent of women in South Kivu province have completed a primary education, and it’s a safe bet that for women in remote, impoverished areas like Itombwe, that number is even lower. (The country’s constitution, however, guarantees equality for men and women in its first two articles. DRC has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.) School fees are often prohibitive for families with many children, and giving boys an education takes priority in most cases, according to multiple Congolese activists and women I spoke to.
But it is the one-two punch of the unstoppable reality of women’s menstrual cycles and the lack of respect given to women in DRC overall that keep them from advancing in their homes, their communities, and in greater Congolese society. Girls, Namadamu said, “remain uneducated and enslaved to an oppressive patriarchal system, all because they don’t have any sani-pads.”
The time has come, fortunately, in which this is finally beginning to change, thanks to an effort by Maman Shujaa. The organization has headed up a program that uses a model created by Days for Girls, which teaches women how to make and distribute reusable sanitary kits. In its first adaption of the program, previously used in Uganda and Kenya and a number of countries throughout the world, Maman Shujaa chose Itombwe as its pilot area—it’s where Namadamu grew up and watched these problems escalate up close. Assumani, a team leader, received training in Kampala on not only how to construct the supplies, but how to make soap to keep the reusable pads clean. She demonstrated in Maman Shujaa’s Bukavu offices how she first makes a cloth shield that snaps onto underwear and then reusable liners that can be fitted one, two, even three at a time in the shield, depending on the extent of the monthly flow. The kit comes with two shields and eight liners, as well as a cloth bag to carry it all discreetly.
“I consider these liners and shields like life,” said Assumani, “because if I don’t use this I’d be forced to use dirty fabric that can make me sick and even die.”
In Bukavu, Assumani along with two of her colleagues made 300 kits and took them to Itombwe, where they conducted training on how to make them and use the pads, and the importance of keeping them clean. After a few meetings, however, men who’d first attended stopped showing up. They had decided that these women from Bukavu—Assumani and her colleagues—were “prostitutes” because they were talking about periods in front of men.
In fact, the disdain for what they were doing was becoming an impediment to distributing the supplies, the women found. As was the money. The group decided they needed to charge $5 a kit in order to be able to continue to purchase all the materials necessary to expand the program. Even so, they were losing money at $5 a kit, Assumani said. She also said that people were able to pay in installments, and that all 300 kits sold, as did the 300 more they made on-site.
While the group found many women willing to purchase the kits for their daughters, in one case, there was a…complication. Assumani met a girl who told her that her mother couldn’t afford $5 for one, “but my dad has many cows,” the girl said, implying his wealth. “Go and tell my dad.” When the group went to talk to the father he said he’d pay the $5 but added, “When you give it to my daughter, don’t mention that I’m the one who bought them,” Assumani said. “Go to the church and say that it’s a donation from the church. Don’t say it’s me who bought it.”
Pascal Byamungu, 27, who also works at Maman Shujaa, explained that in a village a girl can’t tell a boy she’s got her period. “The mother yes, the father, never.” It’s a taboo, Assumani stressed. When you wash the pads, she said, you have to dry it in a place where the father can’t see—“If it’s out in the open he’ll think you’re a prostitute.”
Overall, the program has been a huge success already, said Namadamu. In addition to women purchasing kits for their daughters, they have begun to buy them for themselves. Policewomen have bought some too, she said. These pads “have become a stigma eraser, a confidence builder, and a girl-power enabler,” Namadamu said.
At the end of January, Maman Shujaa set off again for Itombwe with 750 more kits, as well as 600 bras for girls and women. “Keeping all those adolescent girls in school until they graduate will have a tremendous impact on the transformation of the area,” Namadamu said.
With barely passable roads, the journey took a difficult 31 hours, the center reported. Yet, to Namadamu, Assumani, and the rest of the team, knowing that even one more girl will complete her education is worth it.
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