Wednesday, November 2, 2011

these girls.

I traveled to East Africa this past May as a first step out into seeing where I might want to go with my career. I took some courses in international development and business, and I think one of my uses for this blog will be unpacking my time there. My all-time favourite moment was talking with the young women pictured above. We spent a few days in Muhanda, which is a village in Western Kenya. We were doing research on some of the development project that were started by the profs we were with (their organization is Hands-On Development Initiatives International Society). I was privileged (and SO excited) to take part in talking with grade 7 and 8 girls about AFRIpads. A year prior they had been given some cloth pads to use during menstruation and we were doing a check-in to see how they were working and if the girls liked them and were still using them.

I was a bit daunted with the task of getting information from these girls. Cultural barriers aside, I was asking them to open up to me about a very private aspect of their life! I looked into these shy faces waiting for me to ask them questions. I had no idea what they thought of me, and felt rather intrusive; I was the one that was supposed to know what to say, apparently. I'll admit, our session began rather awkwardly and ended only slightly less awkward, but the honesty and openness of these girls blew me away. I leaned close to hear their answers to questions as they spoke to me softly and politely. They whispered about me and laughed as well, but who can blame them...I was clearly out of my element. When I asked if they liked using the cloth pads the girls broke out into a huge grin. I asked them what they had used before receiving the pads, and most of them used pieces of old mattress or straw to manage their period... I cannot even wrap my mind around that! There are already so many uncomfortable things about having a period, without having to "wear" a piece of a mattress. Many of them would have to miss school, but since using the Afripads they assured me they did not miss a single day. As they told me this information I was truly humbled and all of my frustrations with having a period were quickly put into perspective.

We talked about how to clean the pads, whether they were still in good condition, and whether their sisters or friends wanted them. There are a few obstacles to fully implementing them, as there is no way to clean them if  they are away from home. I was pleasantly surprised that they also began asking me questions about their periods, about what to do if your period is irregular, how much bleeding is too much, and what is available in terms of managing pain. I was caught off-guard, not expecting this conversation, and apparently my girls were the only ones asking this. I was simultaneously terrified and bursting with excitement. My only qualifications were extensive forum reading, as women's sexual health is one of my past-times. I felt like a big sister trying to carefully explain all they needed to know to take care of themselves, and strongly encouraged them to be open with their questions with their mothers and teachers. It was pretty awesome.

There is a strength in these girls that I will never know. I was amazed at their tenacity and dreams for the future, facing circumstances that I would never ever deal with, just because I was born here and not there. The awkwardly-intimate half hour I spent with them is one of my most treasured memories. But while I sit here, feeling warm and fuzzy about our chat, they are still living their lives day in day out. I was only privy to the smallest of glimpses into their lives and don't really know all it is that they go through, what is good in their lives and what is challenging. The best way I can think to pay respect to these women is to recognize how very blessed I am, and to do something with my privileges. Not everyone has the education I have. Not everyone has the supportive family I have. Not everyone has access to a sanitary pad (which provides more obstacles than you might initially think). I hope that in my efforts to be a good steward of the resources I have been blessed with, I can become half the woman I saw in these girls.

(Photo Credit: Last three - Dr. Ruth Anaya)

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