This year’s official theme for International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change.” There is no better word than bold to describe how we should be talking about women’s health. Despite the fact that women make up nearly half of the global population, menstruation and reproductive health are often talked about with a shrouded air of mystery which encourages taboos and myths to spread.
When Elizabeth Scharpf first went to Rwanda, she found out that 18% of girls were missing school because of their periods, and many women and girls did not have access to an affordable way to manage their cycle. This struck her as unfair, and she started Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), whose first venture is SHE28. SHE28, with technical support from Johnson & Johnson, has produced and sold over 200,000 disposable sanitary pads using locally sourced banana fiber as the absorbent core. Yet, even when women have access to pads, more work is needed to help women and girls understand and feel comfortable with their periods.
SHE now employs Jeannette Murekatete as a Health and Hygiene Manager. Her mission? To make taboos and myths around menstruation a thing of the past. Jeannette trains teachers in menstrual health and hygiene, who are then responsible for training their own students. She also does trainings for women and girls directly in camps and in communities, but finds that the support teachers can provide is invaluable. SHE’s ultimate aim is to have menstrual hygiene education included as a mandatory part of teacher trainings and for the curriculum to be instituted at a national level by the Rwandan Ministries.
“We start each training by brainstorming to know what information and ideas – true or false – people bring to the table,” Jeannette says. There are many commonly held beliefs, for example, that certain vegetables will wilt if a menstruating woman walks through a garden, or that a menstruating woman shouldn’t cook for a group of people. Jeannette fights these myths by showing people why and how women have periods, using a curriculum designed with both teachers and young students in mind.
Sometimes, the work can be frustrating. She once spent a long time training a male teacher who assured her it was impossible for a woman to get pregnant if he sings a specific song to her while she is menstruating. No matter what biological information Jeannette provided, she had a tough time getting through. “Honestly, I don’t know if he still believes that now. Sometimes people place more importance on the cultural beliefs that they hold, even when they have been well educated.”
Jeannette doesn’t get discouraged by those incidents because she sees a new generation of better informed girls who are quickly becoming women.
“Girls have menstruation clubs at their schools where they are encouraged to talk about their periods with each other and with their families at home. Today’s girls are much more comfortable discussing body issues than their parents are.”
Jeannette says she also makes sure that she and her husband speak to their kids openly about all topics. She herself is comfortable talking about difficult and taboo subjects because her own father always encouraged mature discussion. To date, Jeannette is responsible for the training of over 3,000 students in menstrual health and hygiene, and she is just getting started.
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March 8 marks International Women’s Day. In collaboration with our partners, Johnson & Johnson is proud to share the stories of women on the front lines of care, improving health for their families and communities.