Turning a ‘curse’ into a cure

2011-12-07 00:00

IF only it could be as simple as Lady MacBeth’s line in the Shakespearean play: “Out. Out damn spot!” But I am not referring to a stain of guilt that won’t wash away.

I am talking about the awkward mishaps that occur when menstruating, often referred to as “the woman’s curse”. Most modern women will experience 456 periods in a lifetime. These menstruation cycles are as normal as breathing or as sleeping. Yet the embarrassment that often accompanies these occasions causes many young women across our country to miss school and even drop out.

A survey found that rural girls missed school as often as four or five days a month because of their period. Often they have no sanitary towels, and are afraid they will be embarrassed if they “leaked” on their clothes. Often the toilet facilities at the schools are inadequate.

In the absence of proper sanitary wear, girls have used newspaper, rags and sponges to soak up the blood. These monthly cycles that occur with the onset of puberty are a cause of deep embarrassment.

“In this field there is little sex education and they are not told what is happening to their changing bodies. In some cases they are chastised and slapped by their mothers for sleeping around.

Mothers shout “ulaleni nobani?” (“who have you slept with?”) accusing the young girl of having had sex, confusing the menstrual bleeding with blood lost during a first sexual encounter­. Angry and rebellious, a girl may retaliate by living up to this undeserved reputation.

Sex-education counsellor Khululiswe Mabaso, who founded the organisation Always keeping girls in School Programme, says that giving out free sanitary pads is just one of their aims, the programme has a much deeper impact. Although the organisation is based in Johannesburg, a programme was launched in the Eastern Cape last year and next year it will be KwaZulu-Natal’s turn. Exactly where in KZN will depend on the Department of Education, and the organisation is waiting for feedback in this regard.

The programme is sponsored by Proctor and Gamble who make the Always­ brand.

“We work with the Department of Education to target areas that are most impoverished and where there is a need to address the issue of sex education,” she explained. “We try to reach the farm schools where there is little outside interaction.

“Usually the pupils get some sex education­ information in Grade 8 in the subject of life orientation, but the problem is that many of the girls are experiencing puberty younger and some are having periods from as young as nine or 10.

“They need to learn about what is happening to them physically and also to learn the dangers of having sex, as they can become pregnant.”

Mabaso says they address pupils­ in Grade 6, Grade 7 and Grade 8. These children are about 11 to 14 years old.

“At first we speak to the boys and we ask them what they know about girls and what happens when they have a period (menses).

“The boys laugh and make jokes but they do not really know the answers­. We give them the facts and we focus on making them aware of how girls feel when a joke is made. We really try to make them sensitive to the fact that their reaction can hurt a girl and even force her out of school.”

Mabaso says that when they spoke to girls about the issue they found that it is not always boys who made insensitive remarks, but other girls who teased them as well.

“Just the other day we had a girl who spoke up. She said another girl had said: ‘You think your blood is like gold because you want everyone to see it’.

“The girl who had made the remark ran out of the room in tears. We spoke to both of them and sorted it out.”

Mabaso says they use the talk to make girls aware that as their bodies change it is a time for them to reflect on their future.

“We try stress to the girls that they are not children anymore and they must be serious about their future­. They can become anything they want to be, with the right attitude.

“They must ignore boys and not get pregnant if they want a bright future.”

Mabaso acknowledged that educating mothers is often part of the issue­ as the mothers of the previous generation were never educated about puberty and sexuality.

“They don’t even know that they are inflicting the same trauma on their daughters as their mothers did to them.”

Mabaso said that President Jacob Zuma’s stance earlier this year on providing sanitary pads to the indigent­ communities is a great step forward in promoting women’s dignity­.

“When we are able to reach young women and impress on them that their bodies are special and that menstruation is nothing to be ashamed of, that it’s just a part of life, then these young women can step forward with pride and own their sexuality.

“They can make positive choices.”

•  To contact Khululiswe Mabaso about the Always Keeping Girls in School Programme, e-mail her at mabaso.kt@pg.com

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