Published in The Natural Parent magazine: Summer, 2017 issue. Click to read the entire article about Nest’s involvement with Days for Girls and The Cambodian Charitable
Every Girl. Everywhere. Period. Menstrual products for all, at home and overseas.
On a blistering hot day in July, 50 young women gathered together in a small classroom in a remote area of rural Cambodia. They were waiting nervously for a visitor to arrive to speak with them about a topic still considered ‘taboo’ and rarely talked about.
These young women, aged 18 years, are some of the very lucky few who found sponsorship to not only complete their schooling but also to have the opportunity to train as a Teacher, a one year course.
They were chosen to be present because not only would it be new and useful information to them personally but also, once qualified as teachers, they would be able to spread the word to many more.
The subject was puberty, menstruation, female hygiene, menstrual care products, self-defence and awareness about trafficking. It was about empowerment.
Cambodia is a developing country where, for many, attending school can be extremely challenging. Transportation, availability of pens and pencils, being able to concentrate on work when hungry, pressure to make money by working or begging are just some of the obstacles. Finding food and shelter are of a higher importance. In a country with no internal social supports a child’s schooling is not always a priority. For girls and young women there are generally additional factors; the requirement they maintain the home, social attitudes etc.
A girl’s menstrual cycle beginning is another thing to add to her struggle to receive an education. Pads and tampons are not always readily available and are certainly out of the price range for many. Currently girls use leaves, mattress stuffing, newspaper, cornhusks, rocks, anything they can find. Adequate bathrooms are rarely available on school grounds. Statistics say girls miss up to 2 months of education and opportunity every year. In addition there are many taboos and stigmas around menstruation, which have to be navigated sensitively whilst discussing myths and misunderstandings.
At this particular school there was a toilet; just the one though and it comprised of a hole in the ground. Luckily for these girls there was a locking door and trough of water: this is not always the case.
You can certainly understand why staying home whilst bleeding might be preferable.
Robyn Fausett, a Nurse and Educator living in New Zealand, had been planning this trip for the best part of a year. Working with youth and women around the idea of body literacy and confidence, natural fertility and body empowerment for many years Robyn had become interested in the social impacts of this knowledge or lack of it.
One of the topics that generated most interest was managing menstruation. Girls these days can begin their menstrual cycle from 8 years of age. They must manage this monthly event for many years (generally until 45- 55 years when a women goes through Menopause) and the products to do so are now quite varied. In NZ most women have affordable options such as pads available from the $2 shop through to the supermarket and chemist. These products can be external and internal – pads and tampons- and more recently re-cyclable /washable options have become popular: material pads and internal ‘cups’. The newest additions to the market are undies such as THINX and Modibodi, which do not even require a pad to absorb menstruation. NZ now have their own company manufacturing certified organic (100% cotton) pads and tampons for supermarkets. Even so in some cases a lack of access to these resources in our poorer areas has resulted in reports of girls missing school because of their period. KidStart, a charity well known to provide rain coats, shoes, food etc to lower decile schools have now started offering menstrual care products to those in need.
Robyn found these reports shocking and through her company’s NZ school programmes ensures all girls are aware of and given access to the supports available to them.
In addition it opened her eyes to what an instrumental key menstrual preparation is to social change for women all over the world.
It is widely known missed schooling can translate to dropping out of education early resulting in a lack of skills/qualifications, which in turn can perpetuate a cycle of poverty and all the negative connotations this brings with it.
Initially Robyn searched for other interested parties and discovered ‘Days for Girls New Zealand’, a chapter of the ‘Days for Girls’ charity originally founded in 2008 in America. This charity aims to provide girls in developing countries around the world with packs containing undies and washable menstrual pads with waterproof shields (holders) designed to be managed with the most basic of washroom facilities; enabling them to attend school more regularly and break a cycle of poverty.
Robyn linked up with Days for Girls and was on to the next stage of the project. Although Days for Girls NZ had some of these kits in stock Robyn was keen to involve the entire community in order to replenish the kits whilst taking the opportunity to get the word out. Through her social media she invited individuals, community groups, Guides, Girls Brigade etc to contribute by holding ‘sewathons’ – sewing recyclable pads (with the patterns provided by Days for Girls).
Robyn enthused “The kits are fantastic! They are all sorts of bright colours (you could put these on a community washing line and no one would be any the wiser!) This is really important because there is a lot of stigma and embarrassment about periods and yet there is also a lack of privacy in the way many live in developing countries. The pads need to be dried, ideally in the sun, to prevent germs”. The vibrant draw-string bags contain 8 coloured pads, 2 shields, a washcloth, 2 pairs of undies, a bar of soap, a couple of waterproof bags to wash/transport used pads, instructions and a menstrual calendar. They are designed to last each girl up to 3 years.
In addition, Robyn completed the Days for Girls training to provide the education, practical skills and information crucial to each community in regards to hygiene, care of kits and understanding/de-stigmatising around menstruation and a trip was planned.
Coincidently, around this time, whilst Robyn was having a chat with a colleague the discussion turned to a friend who was working in Cambodia with a charity. She had mentioned the issues and atrocities the country has faced over recent years and the desire to move forward and the challenges faced by the women. Robyn had found her destination.
The next step in the project involved Robyn connecting with the Cambodian Charitable Trust, a charity which supports schools, teacher training colleges, fund raises for bicycles to allow children in the more remote areas to get to school, provides uniforms and constantly seeks resources to assist further. They were excited by the idea of providing menstrual/puberty education and kits to their students. Another link made!
So finally, in July in the rural Takeo Province in Cambodia, Robyn met with 50 teenagers training as Teachers. Thanks to the Cambodian Charitable Trust they will be able to engage in paid work in the future and, importantly, educate and support the children in their communities.
Via a translator Robyn was able to convey vital information concerning hygiene, menstrual care, safety, self defense and awareness of trafficking with the hope these teachers will then be able to continue passing on the message to their own students one day.
Each girl was also given a ‘Days for Girls’ pack. Robyn commented, “the connection and gratitude was overwhelming and the afternoon was filled with laughter as the girls relaxed, shared their own experiences and fully participated; singing ‘Happy Birthday’ together (an excellent time gauge of adequate hand washing), demonstrating the kit by my putting on the undies (over trousers!) to glittering our hands to demonstrate the spread of germs. The girls loved the packs and the variety of colours to choose from and were excited to learn how to manage the kits depending on their individual menstrual flow. It was a humbling experience for me and I trust an empowering one for these young women”.
Robyn is now back in New Zealand and the feedback from the schools in Cambodia has been so positive she has no hesitation in confirming she will be looking to repeat the venture. Robyn sees the value in training the trainers in addition to giving out kits to girls in order for the information to continue to be passed forward (and discovered these trainers benefitted greatly from receiving the kits themselves, surviving on only a tiny amount of money per month and also often having to miss class due to period management).
A group of trainee teachers has asked for the pattern for the pads and intends to begin a group to sew more.
Robyn comments, “It’s all about balance. Being able to work in a field I feel so passionate about is a wonderful thing. There is much to be done in New Zealand itself in regards to sexuality education and the effects of poverty and vulnerable children and I, through my company, will continue to address this. In addition we are able to demonstrate to kiwi kids the work we can do in other areas to assist worldwide. It’s something practical we can do to help others”.