As restrictions lift this year, we have made the decision to recommence door-to-door fundraising activity in line with government guidelines.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen inequalities increase around the world and driven back decades of progress on gender equality & girls’ education.
This week, as world leaders gather in London for the Global Partnership for Education’s financing summit, we are shining a spotlight on the impacts of the pandemic on girls’ lives and education across the world.
Our Halted Lives series of conversations will take you on a (virtual) journey from Amman to Dublin, from, Freetown to Washington DC.
The conversations platform the voices of children and young people as they share their experiences of the pandemic and their hopes for the future.
The series also features Minister Colm Brophy, Alice Albright, Maia Dunphy and Gemma Hayes.
Check it out below!
13-year-old Awa lives in the Center East region of Burkina Faso with her parents and siblings. With support from Plan International, her school has been assisting girls to manage their periods by installing gender-segregated latrines and teaching girls how to make their own reusable period pads.
Awa remembers having to manage her period in the bushes near the school before the latrines were installed. Many of her classmates used to stay at home from school altogether when they had their period.
“When I first came to this school, the latrines were bad,” she says. “There were no separate latrines for boys and girls – now the latrines are brilliant, and we can stay in school when we have our period. We just change our pads in the latrines and go back to class.”
13 -year-old Awa is hearing impaired. She wants to be a teacher when she grows up and inspire the younger generation. Access to education can be a serious challenge for girls in Burkina Faso, especially girls with disabilities, as the country is grappling with insecurity, displacement and now also coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Girls are vulnerable to being subjected to child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence. On top of this, difficulties in managing their periods can mean girls miss school, leading to some eventually dropping out of education and never returning.
Georgette is a teacher in Awa’s school and can recall when menstrual hygiene management was a major challenge for female students. She is very glad that girls can now manage their periods in safety and dignity, and they are not forced out of education.
“There are so many barriers to girls’ access to education, including child, early & forced marriage and the burden of housework. Before the segregated latrines were installed, many girls would stay at home on their period, and some would end up dropping out altogether. It meant that many girls failed school especially if their period coincided with exams or assessments.”
“Before, there was nowhere for the girls to change in private as the latrines were mixed and there was no door. Now the girls are happy they can manage their period and stay in school.”
Georgette believes in unlocking the power and potential of girls across Burkina Faso by ensuring they can go to school.
“I would like everyone to know that girls too can build the country like men. What men can do, girls can do too. There is a saying that ‘to educate a girl is to educate a nation’. I want all girls in Burkina Faso to attend school.”
“I got married after I finished my exams in my third semester at university. My husband promised me that I would be able to finish my education but when I was getting ready to go back to university, he stopped me from leaving and said, ‘consider yourself a divorced woman if you go back’,” Zainab explains.
34% of girls in Sudan are married before the age of 18 and 12% are married before their 15th birthday. Child marriage is driven by gender inequality and exacerbated by poverty, low levels of education and harmful traditional norms and attitudes. Girls are usually married to men who are older than them and rarely have a say in decisions regarding their marriage.
With no alternative, Zainab dropped her studies and not long afterwards fell pregnant, but she refused to give up on her dream of finishing her education. “I said to myself, if I get educated and get my certificate, then I can change my daughter’s life and I can educate her too and if she faces any problems in her life, she can say that her mother overcame this problem, so I can too. I want to be a role model for her.”
When her daughter was eleven months old, Zainab divorced her husband and set about raising Mashallah as a single mother. “I have started my life from scratch and soon I will resume my studies at university. I think that child marriage is a complete violation against girls and it undermines women’s rights.”
Zainab credits Plan International with helping her gain a better understanding of gender equality and girls’ rights. “My first Plan International workshop was in 2009. It was about women’s rights and female empowerment. Another workshop I attended was about violence against women. I think I’m stronger because of them, Plan International were very supportive of me.”
Having worked as a volunteer teacher at the school in her village since 2017 and now working at the literacy centre in her community, Zainab is a firm believer that education offers girls a better future. “I am teaching at the school because there are some girls who have dropped out of school, they are told that education is not important and I’m trying to help them to continue their studies.”
When asked what message she would give to other girls, Zainab says: “Don’t accept marriage while you are under 18. If you forced to do so, you should tell them that child marriage has risks. A young girl cannot do all the household work or have sex with her husband because she is still growing.”
“When a girl is under 18, she should not become pregnant and will face infertility problems. If she does get pregnant, she will face problems during childbirth and she is also at a high risk of miscarriage because her pelvis is still growing. This is all because of child marriage.”
Now 21, Zainab is looking forward to returning to university and is very optimistic about her future, and that of her young daughter who is now three. “I want my daughter to live a happy life without any problems. That she has good education and marries the love of her life after she becomes a woman. That is what I hope for my daughter in the future.”
“I didn’t know how to protect myself from coronavirus. We had heard about the number of victims claimed by the pandemic throughout the world and we, in our remote region and already dealing with difficult living conditions, knew that we were facing trouble”, says 15-year-old student Madi in Cameroon.
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 pace that suits you in 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.