Many years ago, during their first week in West Africa, some friends of ours were making a long road trip through the African Bush with an older, more experienced missionary. Even in the remotest part of the jungle there were numerous police blocks on the side of the road and as they pulled up to each one, the couple were amazed to see small wooden shacks advertising ‘tampons’ at every stop. Impressed with this display of feminine solidarity, the wife leaned forward to express her delight to the missionary driver and to ask what on earth they used to make them, out, as they were, in the middle of nowhere.
“Oh, pretty much anything they can find,” beamed the driver. “Mainly little bits of wood, old tyres and even flip flops on occasion.”
Astounded and now a little bewildered, the couple spent the rest of the journey in horrified silence. Some time later, they were relieved to discover that ‘tampon’ actually means ‘stamp’ in French and the shacks were in fact there for the police should they need to mark people’s papers as they went through the stops.
Amusing as this episode was, the reality for many women in rural Africa is much more serious. Sanitary items are hard to come by and limited resources mean that even when they can be found, families are often unable to prioritise buying them. This means that for many young women, ‘staying in’ is the only way to effectively deal with their periods. This is particularly true for young girls still living in the family home who can end up missing weeks of school each year simply because they lack the materials to effectively cope.
This disruption is as detrimental as it is unnecessary, which is why a little bit of HOPE developed the RUMPS (Re-Usable Menstrual Pads) programme. The idea is to train school girls to make their own re-usable sanitary items from locally sourced and readily available materials. Not only does this serve the practical purpose of providing the young women with a sustainable way of managing their periods, but the training process has also helps break down the shame and silence that often surrounds this subject and encourage the girls (and the school staff we work alongside) to tackle this issue together.
In their most recent update, our training team shared with us the overwhelmingly positive impact that this project has experienced in the 4 schools we are currently working in. Over 80 girls attended the last training session (almost triple the numbers expected), a fact which reflects not only the dire need for such classes, but their considerable popularity also. These training sessions are full of laughter and smiles as the girls split up into small groups to make their items. Whichever team manages to make the most by the end of the sessions wins a prize – a fun element of the lesson which helps to create a positive buzz and eliminate any initial embarrassment.
The girls not only gain practical skills but leadership skills also, as by the end of the course, they are equipped to instruct other groups the next time round. Sandra Nemwa, a 14 year old student who attended the course in November, shared with us that she is now teaching her young sisters to make RUMPs at home as a ‘special project’ which they work on together in the evening after school.
Our team has also been teaching older women in the community how to make RUMPS, and their daughters have been helping! Maureen, aged 12, told our team that she had been trained at school and was ‘an expert in the field’, having made lots at home; a skill she was happy to be able to pass on to her mother.
It’s a beautiful thing to see the girls rallying together so joyfully and to know that the training really does provide a sustainable and cost effective way of tackling periods. ‘Smart’ and ‘hygienic’ is how 15-year old Angella Natabo, described the RUMPS and when we see the number of girls now attending class throughout the entire month, we have to agree! Like Angella, we are so grateful to all of you who are part of this liberating and empowering project.