13-year-old Cephas is in his final year of junior secondary school. A few years ago, he and his friends used to make fun of girls when they had their period. Growing up, he was told that girls were unclean and should be shunned whenever they were menstruating. But today, after joining a health club set up at his school by Plan International, he is now a champion for girls’ rights and a strong advocate for girls’ menstrual health management.
Cephas lives with his family in the Volta Region of Ghana and has three sisters. As a young boy, he saw how badly his sisters were treated when they had their periods, forced to stay separate from the family because they were considered to be ‘unclean’. In school, because he could not tell if a girl was menstruating or not, he and his friends distanced themselves from the girls, believing that all girls were dirty.
“In this community, there is a myth around periods and it is noticeable in the way women and girls are treated. When girls have their periods, they are separated from their families and treated as outcasts,” he says. “Girls are not allowed to cook for the family or touch anything belonging to the family during their periods because they are unclean.”
Because of the shame and stigma girls are forced to endure, many miss school when they are menstruating and some drop out of school altogether when their periods start. As part of a rural water, sanitation and health (RWASH) project in the region, Plan International set up a health club at Cephas’ school to discuss menstrual health and hygiene management with the students.
Initially, the boys were unwilling to join the clubs, but one boy did come to the meetings and he convinced Cephas to join the club as well. In the two years that the club has been running, Cephas says he has discovered many false superstitions surrounding menstrual health and is challenging these barriers by helping with the distribution of sanitary pads and spearheading a health campaign that is challenging negative attitudes around menstruation in his community.
“It is my dream to see boys and men embracing the thought that menstruation is a natural occurrence in the lives of women and girls and not to be seen as unclean. After learning so much from the health club, I feel bad about how I have treated my sisters,” he says.
Cephas says his biggest achievement so far has been to change his father’s mindset on menstruation. “My sisters can now sleep in the house during their periods. My father has come to realise that no evil can befall his household with them being a part of the family when they are menstruating.”
Girls in West Africa are missing out on their education because they don’t have adequate access to period products. The start of a period for girls living in the world’s poorest communities, can mean dropping out of education completely, leaving them at greater risk of child marriage, early pregnancy, sexual exploitation and child labour.
We believe that no girl should be held back because of her period.
By taking part in the Menstrual Cycle, you’ll be helping to raise vital funds for girls. Your €150 fundraising target could provide more than 12 dignity kits, that contain items such as reusable pads, soap and underwear. These kits will enable girls to stay in school.
There are two challenges within the Menstrual Cycle to choose from:
There is lots of flexibility with this challenge; choose your challenge length (it can be anything from 5 miles to 500 miles!) and then clock up the miles at a time that suits you, on any bike, at any pace between 28 May and end of June.
Lessons are broadcast in the morning, on subjects ranging from mathematics, to French and literacy. Under the supervision of the Ministry of Education’s regional services, students, teachers and school principals all collaborated together on the project, from its conception to the production of the radio programmes.
“The children made the programmes with their teachers; they contributed to the lessons and made suggestions to the teachers when their explanations are difficult to understand. A WhatsApp group was also created and head teachers made observations and recommendations to improve the content,” explains Abdoulaye Alhousseini, head teacher of one of the schools taking part in the project.
11-year-old Rahmata is a keen member of her school’s listening club. Like thousands of children, the school closures affected her. “When schools were closed, I couldn’t go to school anymore or see my friends; it really disrupted my year. At home, I couldn’t study because I had to help with the household chores like washing dishes, doing laundry and sweeping the yard.”
When the radio sets arrived at her school, Rahmata was quick to join her club to follow the lessons on the radio. The children listen to the classes broadcast on the radio and then complete the exercises related to the lessons they have just heard.
“I enjoy following the lessons on the radio. It has helped me with my reading and to learn French. With my brothers, we review what we have learnt at night through the radio and then do our maths and French homework together. It’s very interesting and we learn a lot,” says Rahmata who hopes to become an accountant and work in a bank.
With the live radio broadcast coming to an end, schools taking part in the project have been provided with a USB key which holds all the radio lessons, this allows the teachers to relisten the programmes whenever they choose, much to the joy of the students who find learning by radio exciting and fun. The radio modules are also used as remedial courses for displaced children needing to catch up with their studies.
“The children get excited whenever they see us bring the radios into class. They know what the radio will be used for and they love it,” says Abdoulaye.
As well as setting up the listening clubs, the schools have been provided with teaching materials, school manuals and hand washing kits to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, “The needs of schools remain high,” explains Abdoulaye. “These include protection and security systems, remedial classes, tables and benches and school kits for the large number of displaced children and those in need.”
“Menstrual hygiene is a taboo in our country, no one wishes to address it publicly for fear of being criticised or even rejected because of the social constraints in our country,” says Kadiatou, one of the members of the Guinea Girl Leaders Club which is supported by Plan International.
Menstrual hygiene concerns the dignity and well-being of all women and girls, particularly school-aged girls who often miss classes due to inadequate menstrual hygiene management, which underpins their right to sanitation and gender equality in education.
Lack of information on menstruation, poor sanitation infrastructure and the fact that menstrual hygiene products are often lacking or inaccessible are among the causes of poor menstrual hygiene in many girls.
“The price of a sanitary pads varies between 10 to 15 thousand Guinean francs and we need them every month for three days to a week for girls who have a long cycle. Girls often can’t afford to pay for them, so they are forced to isolate themselves at home. If they have to go to school during this time, it’s impossible. It’s the same thing for girls who have jobs,” Kadiatou explains.
Realising the impact poor menstrual hygiene management is having on girls in their community, the girl leaders worked with Plan International to distribute reusable sanitary pads free of charge to adolescent girls.
“We said to ourselves, we need to think about pads that are washable and meet all the hygiene criteria and that’s what we did. This is a pilot phase that we are exploring, but the outcome has been positive because demand is greater than supply,” says Kadiatou.
As many girls and young women do not receive the correct information on how to manage their hygiene and health during their periods, the girl leaders also raise awareness about menstruation and reproductive health.
“The lack of information on menstrual hygiene hinders many girls in their studies and apprenticeships. As a group that promotes girls’ rights, we felt that now is the time to act to teach girls about how to manage their periods,” Kadiatou explains.
The group found that although some girls discuss these issues with their sisters and friends, most did not want to talk about their menstruation with their mothers. When Aicha first started her periods, she tried to hide it from her family.
“When I got my period for the first time, I was not surprised because I had big sisters who prepared me for it, but I hid it from my mother for the first few months. It was my sister who told her because I was too ashamed to tell her myself. She took me to her room to give me some pads and explained how to use them.”
As well as breaking the taboos about menstrual hygiene management, the girl leaders are also using the opportunity to raise awareness about COVID-19 prevention and distribute face masks and soap – something which is particularly important to reduce the likelihood of a new wave of COVID-19 infections.
With the recent relaxation of restrictions, many people in Guinea are no longer following the recommendations of social distancing, wearing face masks and regular handwashing, leading to fears of a resurgence of the virus among vulnerable communities.
“People behave as if the disease is over, they are in the markets, in the bus stations, in the bars without protective measures, it is really regrettable and worrying. We don’t want a new wave of COVID-19 in our country like elsewhere in the world. This is why we are trying to make our parents as aware as possible so that they realise that the disease is indeed in our country and we must protect ourselves,” explains Fatime.
Education, tackling stigma and free period products are needed to effectively end ‘Toxic Trio’ of period injustices
Today, Plan International Ireland re-launches its We Need To Talk. Period. campaign.
The organisation’s Principles for Period Justice calls for four key actions to address the so-called ‘Toxic Trio’ of period injustices for girls, women and people who menstruate. The ‘Toxic Trio’ refers to the unaffordability of period products, a lack of menstrual education, and period stigma.
To address these issues, Plan International is calling for proper menstrual education, an end to period stigma, and the universal provision of free period products. The organisation is also recommending that menstrual health and hygiene management be built into Ireland’s overseas development assistance and humanitarian response.
The We Need To Talk. Period. campaign was originally launched in 2018 and shared the stark findings of Plan International Ireland’s survey into girls’ experiences of period poverty and stigma in Ireland. The 2018 research found that half of girls in Ireland aged 12-19 struggled to afford period products, half did not find school useful for information about their periods and 55% were embarrassed by their periods.
The international development and humanitarian organisation, which focuses on children’s rights and equality for girls, is also encouraging people to talk openly about their periods on social media to break the shame and stigma.
Barbara Scettri, Development Programmes Manager with Plan International Ireland, said: “Tackling the ‘Toxic Trio’ of period injustices would have a hugely positive impact on girls, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised. We have seen in our work in development and humanitarian contexts how girls may end up dropping out of education when they cannot manage their periods. This puts them at huge risk of gender-based violence, including child marriage. Additionally, girls may be using rags, grass or paper to manage their periods which can be hugely detrimental to their health.”
She continued: “COVID-19 has made it even more difficult for girls and women to manage their periods in safety and dignity. Our 2020 Periods in a Pandemic report showed how global lockdowns have led to shortages and price hikes in products, restricted access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, and an increase in period stigma. Periods don’t stop during a pandemic and this report highlights the importance of including menstrual health & hygiene management in responding to crises.”
Ending period poverty and period stigma is hugely important to Plan International Ireland’s Youth Advisory Panel (YAP). Amara and Emma are two members of the YAP who are calling for action addressing the ‘Toxic Trio.’
Amara said: “We are tired of being shamed for our periods. Menstruation is a perfectly normal part of life, why should we feel ashamed? It’s very encouraging to see the action being taken across the country to provide free period products to all. The promise to provide free products by government is very welcome but is just one piece of the puzzle. More than half of the girls we surveyed felt embarrassed by their periods. We want people who have periods to be able to discuss them openly and without fear of stigma or shame. While some progress has been made, the reality is: We Still Need To Talk. Period.”
Emma said: “Proper education on periods is so important. Half of the girls we surveyed in 2018 did not find school useful for information about their periods. Education on periods should be ongoing throughout school and cover more than the basic biology of menstruation. Boys need to be included in these conversations too. It’s not just a ‘women’s issue’ – it’s an issue of gender equality and social justice.”
Plan International is asking people to get involved in the campaign by sharing stories of their first periods and experiences with period shame on social media using the hashtags #WeNeedToTalkPeriod and #MyFirstPeriod. Visit www.plan.ie for more information.
“I was 10-years-old when the fighting broke out in my village. Terror, constant running and hiding, and hunger became the order of our days. My mother fell sick and got worse by the day due to the conflict, I was the only one left to take care of her,” says Nancy* who is living in the midst of the ongoing socio-political crisis in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon.
“One morning, my mother sent me to buy rice from one of the few shops in the village that were still open. I walked to the store along the narrow paths, which had become empty and lonely. When I entered the store, the shopkeeper dragged me to the back and forced himself on me. This horrific experience led to my first pregnancy,” Nancy explains.
There has been a devastating effect on children and young people, especially girls, in Cameroon’s North West and South West. The socio-political crisis in the two regions has led to an increase in the number of people displaced by violence. Many people have left the rural areas for communities around the regions’ capital cities.
While many children are out of school, adolescents and young people are also more exposed to protection concerns, including physical violence, neglect, exploitation, child labour and forced recruitment into armed groups, among others.
Nancy lost her father during the when the fighting broke out and later lost her mother. She has a younger sister and brother who now live with different foster families. Today, she is 15-years-old and has already given birth to two children.
“After the rape, my body no longer felt the same. The feeling got worse with time. Months later, my mother realised that I was pregnant. We managed until I gave birth, and my mother died shortly after,” Nancy recounts. As a child mother, life became extremely hard for Nancy. Unable to take care of herself and the baby, a community member took her to live in an orphanage in a neighbouring village.
While in the orphanage, Nancy found a new family and started attending a community school where she made new friends, but her happiness was short-lived. In December 2019 she was raped for the second time, this time by her teacher, which led to her second pregnancy.
“After it happened again, I became afraid and ashamed. I was pregnant again; two men had forced themselves on me. I have two children, I am only 15, my parents are dead, there is no one to stand up for me. I will not go to school again. The situation pained me so much,” Nancy says.
Thereafter, life became very difficult for Nancy. The orphanage could no longer take care of her, her unborn baby and her five-year-old son. She was sent to live at foster home in Bamenda, the region’s capital.
Nancy was unsure of where she was going and didn’t want to be a burden to her new host, so she left her son behind in the orphanage before leaving for her new home in Bamenda, where she now lives. Although she is happy in her new home, life is not easy. Nancy has stopped going to school due to her pregnancy and the house where she lives is small, but has to accomodate 14 children and adults who all depend on their foster mother for support.
“I was glad to receive Nancy, though I worried about our living conditions. I used to sell firewood to take care of them, but my kitchen burnt down and fending for the household became more difficult. However, we take one day at a time,” explains Nancy’s foster mother, Aminata*.
During community training sessions run by Plan International, Nancy was identified for support. The protection team provided her with psychosocial support, which continues via home visits. Nancy also received a maternal care kit containing items for both mother and baby and check-ups throughout her pregnancy and after she delivered her baby.
In addition, Nancy was referred to Médecins du Monde for counselling and follow up sessions. Her foster mother has also received psychosocial support to help her become more resilient and build up her self-esteem, which will help her look after her foster children.
“I cannot express the amount of love that you and your team are showing me. All I can say is, thank you for bringing me hope,” Nancy says. Her foster mother agrees: “Your team came in just when we were anxious about how to manage her pregnancy and delivery. Thank you for taking care of her, her baby and us all.”
Today, Nancy has regained her confidence. She is happy and has the motivation to take part in a vocational training course to establish a source of livelihood for herself and her baby. “You have been supporting me for so long, but I would be glad if you gave me the opportunity to learn a trade so I can start making my own money to take care of my children and my family.”
“Before the activities of Plan International in our community, we didn’t care much about what child protection was all about. But, thanks to the training, child friendly spaces activities, livelihood initiatives and radio education programmes, our lives have changed. Today, most people in the community are very conscious about the protection of children,” explains community leader Philip Abili from Bamenda.
“When they see a child being beaten or hawking in the streets, amongst other things, they try to find out why. We receive a lot of complaints in the traditional council on a regular basis, including cases of rape and sexual abuse, and we punish the perpetrators and refer the children for follow-up checks.”
Despite enormous efforts by the government and humanitarian organisations, there are still hundreds of thousands of children, especially girls in the two regions, who are in need of protection services. This is highlighted in recent research carried out by Plan International, which reveals the key concerns that girls and young women from North West and South West Cameroon have, centre around the lack of access to education.
Miriam Castaneda, Country Director for Plan International in Cameroon, says: “Underlying everything, the girls emphasised the overall importance of peace and a desire to see the end of this long-running conflict. We are calling on United Nations Member States, the Government of Cameroon, and all stakeholders to prioritise peacebuilding, which includes a ceasefire, as well as protection and concrete measures to end attacks on schools.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
North-West and South West (NWSW) Cameroon has been in conflict since September 2017, when tensions between Anglophone and Francophone communities escalated into violence. An estimated 3 million people have been affected by the conflict since.
New research from Plan International, Listen to us: Adolescent girls in NWSW Cameroon on conflict and COVID-19, hears directly from adolescent girls about their experiences living through this complex crisis.
Using surveys, key interviews and focus group discussions, the research captures a picture of the experiences of adolescent girls, including those who are mothers, pregnant, or married.
Their interviews reveal that, without intervention or support, a generation of girls risk remaining out of school, and living in fear of violence and exploitation, particularly sexual and gender-based violence. Both situations will have severe and lifelong consequences for girls.
Plan International’s Country Director in Cameroon Miriam Castaneda said: “Conflict in Cameroon has been largely ignored by the international community since the war began, but the situation here needs urgent attention. Schools remain closed, and we see rising levels of poverty and difficulty finding work.
“Now, with the added pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic making an already dangerous situation worse, the regions have been pushed to breaking point.
“As in other complex crises, adolescent girls and young women are being the hardest hit, and it is vital that, in order to provide them with the support they need, we listen to their concerns and aspirations, and act accordingly.”
Separatists in the NWSW regions declared independence from the central government in 2017, with insurgency and conflict spreading to most parts of the Anglophone regions within a year.
Education is a key battleground, with separatists imposing a boycott on education that uses the Government of Cameroon’s curriculum. Many schools have been closed since the conflict began, and there have been attacks on those that have remained open. Early in 2021 under 30% of schools in the area were operational.*
Completing education was a huge concern for the adolescent girls interviewed. Amina* said: “Most of us used to finish school. Now we face serious challenges to go to school because of the war. Most girls now drop out because of unwanted pregnancy, poverty of the parents, insecurity of sexual abuse and outbreak of attacks from armed groups.”
Despite rising challenges, 98% of the girls who took part prioritised professional careers.
Girls also saw health education, especially sexual and reproductive health, as a priority, and emphasised bringing healthcare closer to the people. They called for more skilled workers, especially nurses and doctors, who could prioritise healthcare for pregnant women and girls.
Conflict and poverty, exacerbated by the pandemic, heighten household tensions with 90% of respondents mentioning lack of basic income as a push factor for sexual exploitation, including child, early and forced marriage. Grace* said of her family: “I’m not at peace because they want me to get married,” while Audrey*, a young mother, commented: “Some girls who are first born have to sacrifice and work to take care of the little ones so they have to drop out of school”.
Ms Castaneda added: “Underlying everything, the girls emphasised the overall importance of peace and a desire to see the end of this long-running conflict. We are calling on United Nations Member States and the Government of Cameroon to prioritise peacebuilding, which includes a ceasefire, as well as protection and concrete measures to end attacks on schools.
“In addition, all possible measures must be taken to address barriers to education for out-of-school adolescent girls.”
Plan International is also calling on international communities, the Cameroonian government and donors to prioritise efforts to reduce violence, particularly sexual and gender-based violence against adolescent girls.
* Cameroon: The education crisis in the Northwest and Southwest. Thematic Report ACAPS 19 February 2021
Deadline for applications has been extended to 5pm on April 15th 2021.
Plan International Ireland is requesting applications from individuals or groups for the evaluation of Plan International Ireland’s Development Education and Public Engagement programmes, funded by Irish Aid as part of the Programme Grant II (PGII).
Read the Terms of Reference and find out how to apply here.
In Jordan, Azraq refugee camp is now home to more than 35,000 refugees from Syria. Since 2016, Plan International has been providing support to some of the most vulnerable Syrian girls and women in both Jordan and Lebanon. This includes psychosocial support, parenting and early childhood care and sexual and reproductive health programmes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Plan International has been helping girls in Azraq to stay connected through its Himayati project. Now run via WhatsApp, girls interact during online sessions and discuss gender and life skills, allowing them to stay connected and provide each other with support.
Can you describe your typical day?
After waking up, I argue with my brothers to get them to tidy up where they slept. I am the eldest, so they have to listen to what I tell them to do. I help my mother with the house chores, then join the online classes either through the public platform or the WhatsApp groups. Then I go on Duolinggo (a mobile language app) to learn some English. Sometimes I film a few videos and edit them on an app that I have downloaded on my mother’s mobile phone.
How has COVID-19 changed your life?
Since the start of the pandemic, many things have changed. I stayed home much more than I am used to. I felt isolated but some things kept me occupied. This is very strange; it’s a strange time.
What activities have helped you cope?
The online sessions help me cope and keep me in contact with other girls my age. It also makes me feel that I am doing something useful with my time. I also reflect on what I learn with other people, most of who are not familiar with many of the terms that we learn about, terms like gender-based violence (GBV) and bullying are not fully understood among the community here, and when I educate a few people I feel that I have made a positive impact on the community.
Some people reject it at first, they say “she attended a class and now she is lecturing us”, but I keep trying and eventually they usually become more open to talk about it.
Can you describe how you have been taking part in the Himayati project using WhatsApp?
I attend the classes and interact with the people and my peers. Sometimes, I cannot attend because the internet connection is bad or because my mother is out of the house and I always use her phone to attend the sessions.
What sorts of things do you talk about, and how has this helped you?
We talk about many things; it depends on the session. So, if I am attending life skills sessions that means that we will be discussing how we can best cope with the new reality that we are facing, how to reduce stress, and make the best use of our time.
If I am attending an arts and crafts session, then we will talk and learn how to use some of the materials we already have in our homes.
Why is it important to interact with other girls in the sessions?
You have to keep in contact with someone, don’t you? You can’t just stay isolated. It’s good to talk about things and sometimes it comes as a relief to know that someone else is going through what you are going through.
What impact do you think the coming winter will have?
Winter here in the camp is terrible. It’s cold and windy. When it rains everything gets so muddy. It becomes hard for us to move around and get things done.
Can you remember where you were 10 years ago?
Still in Syria.
When you arrived here, how long did you think you would stay for?
We came here in 2016, my parents told me it was supposed to be for a few months so I didn’t expect to still be here 5 years later.
Where do you see home now?
What do you miss most about Syria?
My uncles, I love them and they were always around back home. I also miss my friends, we used to always joke around and play pranks on each other.
What are your hopes for the future?
I want to become an English teacher and a photographer. I hope the conflict in Syria will end, because I don’t want to do that here in the camp#. I want to teach and take pictures in Syria instead.
Additional quote from Shayma’a father (Abdullah) and mother (Radya)
“She is growing up and she is shaping her personality. She now makes her own decisions she imposes her will on what surrounds her. She is a strong girl. We are proud”.
(CONAKRY, DUBLIN): The news that Guinea is facing the resurgence of the Ebola virus is hugely concerning, warns child rights and humanitarian organisation Plan International.
Following the deaths of at least five people and in application of the International Health Regulations (IHR), the Guinean Government declared an epidemic of Ebola virus disease in the Nzérékoré prefecture, sub-prefecture of Gouecké,
The cases are linked to the burial of a nurse in Gouecké, near the Liberian border on 1st February.
During the previous Ebola epidemic, girls and young women were particularly hard hit, bearing the brunt of the loss of already precarious health services, community cohesion and basic needs such as food. Plan International is extremely concerned about the consequences of another epidemic.
Dualta Roughneen, Head of Programmes at Plan International Ireland, said: “Ebola devastated Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia only a few short years ago. The new outbreak in Guinea is of serious concern and the immediate need is to control and eliminate the virus as quickly as possible before we see a repeat of 2014 in order to save lives. This means ensuring the rapid scale-up of a medical response, but also controlling the onward spread of the virus. Just as we see here in Ireland in dealing with Covid-19, measures to control a viral outbreak can have a knock-on impact on the livelihoods which will be more devastating in a vulnerable country such as Guinea. However, these measures are vital to control a virus that has a 50% fatality.
“The stark reality is that these necessary measures will have a disproportionate impact on girls and young women, as we have seen replicated globally throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Resultant school closures & other restrictive measures render girls even more at risk of gender-based violence. We saw sexual exploitation & adolescent pregnancy rise during the previous Ebola outbreak, as has been happening during the coronavirus pandemic. Girls are also less likely than their male counterparts to ever return to education.”
He continued: “Plan International Ireland will continue to work with our colleagues and partners in Guinea to mitigate the risks to children and young people, especially girls and young women, as much as possible. Our work in Guinea focuses on supporting limiting the virus spread while ensuring children have access to quality and inclusive education and this has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic.”
“Our goal is for children, especially girls, to be spared from the worst impacts of the new Ebola epidemic.”
Johnson Bien-Aimé, Plan International’s Country Director in Guinea, said: ’’We are very concerned about the resurgence of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Guinea, reporting five suspected deaths due to the epidemic in southern Guinea, one of our organization’s intervention zones.
“In 2014, when the first cases of Ebola were reported in the prefecture of Guéckédou, Plan International Guinea was at the forefront of the response. On this occasion, Plan International has reassured the Guinean Government that we are ready to help quickly contain the disease.’’
“Protection mechanisms at the community level should also be strengthened, livelihoods restored, and support provided to ensure community resilience.”