Friday, 10 June 2016

You are a woman now

Girls in Ghana, especially in the Northern Regions, face an uphill struggle when it comes to education. While factors such as child poverty (which affects girls disproportionally to boys) and teenage pregnancy (which is rife in Ghana) affect school drop-out rates for girls within Ghana, education levels for girls decline as they start their periods. Menstrual cramps, embarrassment and the inability to deal with the more physical aspects of menstruation result in girls taking time out of school, further increasing the gap between men and women in terms of education and equal opportunities from early teenage years.

Eunice, one of WOSAG’s Ghanaian ICS volunteers from the Northern Regions, spoke to us about her experiences growing up through the Ghanaian education system and the issues she and her peers faced in relation to menstruation. She tells the story of one of her female classmates who, aged 10, had bled all over the seat of her chair during a lesson which provoked teasing from the boys in her class and gossip from the girls about the uncontrollable bleeding: “What is it? An aborted pregnancy?”. This had happened a number of times. No one quite understood what was going on. The girl began to stay at home when she was on her period, missing days of school at a time. A teacher had noticed her repeated humiliation and monthly absences and approached her. The girl had explained how she didn’t have the funds to purchase sanitary towels so the teacher provided her with them every month. While this was a kind, well-intentioned gesture, sadly a single teacher cannot provide sanitary pads to a school of girls who don’t have the funds to buy their own. In the Northern Regions of Ghana, access to and knowledge of sanitary towels is low. Reusable cotton towels are the homemade substitute for dealing with menstrual blood, which are inefficient and unhygienic, causing girls to take off around 11 out of the 45 weeks of school every year.

One of our peer educators at Kanvili RC giving a sanitary pad demonstration
While in the UK it is heavily integrated into the teaching curriculum at both primary and secondary level, it is illegal or traditionally frowned upon in Ghana, especially in Islamic schools, to discuss Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights issues within educational institutions during school hours. While there are some more liberal schools which understand the need for education on these topics, SRHR is not in the teaching curriculum and therefore schools often rely on NGOs, such as WOSAG, to deliver these sessions. Additionally, families rarely discuss this topic at home. The resulting lack of knowledge of menstrual hygiene not only increases the stigma around menstruation, causing girls to feel ashamed and embarrassed, but can also lead to disease and infection as girls are not taught the importance of personal hygiene. Eunice was lucky; she has an older sister and is part of a family who were open and willing to discuss the matter. However, the conversation came after Eunice had already started her period, and was therefore left in the dark up until the age of 15.

When it comes to menstruation, there are numerous myths. Menstruating women and girls are seen as impure or unclean and are therefore not allowed to cook and are separated from the community. Some are not allowed to wash during their periods as it is thought that the blood contaminates nearby streams or water supplies and will negatively affect the productivity of men. Menstrual blood is seen as a bad omen. Some think that starting period is a sign that you have been sexually active. It is widely believed that girls who have started their periods are immediately ready to bear children.

Although these issues do not directly concern them, it is essential that boys and men are educated on menstruation for the current situation in Ghana to change or improve. Girls who have been the victims of teasing or bullying about their periods from boys at school can experience long lasting psychological trauma as a result. As the more dominant, economically strong members of Ghanaian society, if men understood the importance of menstrual hygiene, they might be happier to spend money on sanitary products for the women in their lives. Additionally, increased awareness amongst men would allow men and women to understand each other more generally.

The organisation we are working with, Women’s Support and Activist Group, strives to improve the quality of life for women and girls in Ghana. We have already raised awareness on some important issues such as domestic violence, contraception and sexually transmitted infections and this week touched upon menstrual hygiene through peer education girls’ groups in two schools and two women’s groups. We must encourage women to embrace the natural process and provide them with all the information they need in order for them to be healthy, hygienic and happy.

Written by Florence Hill-Jenkins and Shaban Amadu Alhassan
Edited by Verity Quaite 

1 comment:

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