By Bahati Valerie, Cofounder and Executive Secretary of COFAPRI. December 2014.
We daily care about the welfare and health of the women and girl members of our organization. We have to help one another get informed and tackle anything that may endanger our lives. The girls in the villages of the DR Congo live in very harsh social, economic, and hygienic conditions due to poverty and lack of information.
Crucial time for girls in DR Congo
The issue of menstrual hygiene for many girls and women in the villages of the DR Congo continues to be a serious problem. Puberty is a crucial time in the life of young girls everywhere. Their bodies are changing and the need for better understanding of those changes is beneficial to their growth as girls and their maturation as women.
Young girls in the villages of the DR Congo are faced with serious hygienic problems regarding their menstrual cycles. The mothers obviously have more experience and, therefore, have the potential to be able to help them through this important time of learning about the female cycle and how best to care for themselves. Girls are of course also more apt to be open to having these conversations with their mothers, than with their fathers.
To better assist with their preparation for the bodily changes that are coming, information such as guidance about menstrual pads and tampons should be shared before they actually need them. The numerous questions that arise about these hygiene products can all be answered by the mothers as they teach their daughters the importance of cleanliness, good health and responsibility. The girls need to know what these items are, and how, when and why to use them.
Social and cultural constraints
Unfortunately, due to traditions, the rural women of the DR Congo often fail to openly discuss these important life-changing issues with their daughters. Fathers are constrained by the same traditions, prohibiting them from having discussions of any kind about sexuality.
In developed countries around the world, social media provides an awareness about such things, but in the villages of the DR Congo, there is no electricity for computers, TV, or radio.
Not always receiving the necessary details from their own mothers, young girls will often seek answers from outside the family unit. Some young girls may have already begun to receive information from friends, or relatives.
These moments of sharing provide simple instructions on the importance of women’s issues, hygiene, and how to effectively use the menstrual pads. The numerous choices of size, color, cost, etc., can be intimidating, yet once explained, the girls are able to see the many options available to them and what a difference this can make in the way they feel about themselves. Knowing that proper protection will be provided for the different rates of flow a girl will experience gives a sense of personal confidence as they move through their daily activities.
Obtaining sanitary pads - challenges
It’s also important for mothers, or other carers, to let the girls know where these items can be purchased, should the need arise unexpectedly. Placing a packet of pads in her daughter’s room for such a moment is an additional thoughtful gesture.
In the nearest city, Bukavu, drug stores and other shops sell disposable sanitary pads and no medical prescription is required. The sanitary pads are also available in the small stores in the main village, Munya. They are more expensive from the village but most women and girls are not able to travel to the city.
As stated, the women of rural DR Congo often fail to have this conversation with their daughters as they approach puberty and have begun to flow. In addition, the majority of the girls who attend school in the villages of the DR Congo are very poor. This becomes a very serious dilemma for them.
In the bigger towns, sanitary pads are often available to purchase from the school nurse and can be stored in a desk or locker. However, in the DR Congo village schools, there are no nurses and also no lockers. These girls also often have no bag in which to carry their sanitary pads. If a girl begins her flow while at school and has never thought of taking pads with her, she would be caught unprepared.
Pads are nonexistent in the outlying villages and because of poverty, they are too expensive for the girls to buy elsewhere.
Alternatives to pads are problematic
Instead of pads, some girls use pieces of cast off clothing, which are then re-used on several occasions, after being washed. The conditions in which they are washed present another issue of questionable hygiene.
Some don’t wear these pieces of cast offs, also leaving them vulnerable to issues of cleanliness and feeling self-conscious.
The opportunity for a caring, dutiful mother to share these aspects of womanhood with her daughter provides an opportunity to teach about normal, female body functions and helps better prepare a girl for taking responsibility for herself when she becomes a woman.
Generous donation of washable sanitary pads from supporter!
Supporter Sharon Multani-colebrook has decided to help these women and girls by providing them with pads so they can start using them.
Sharon's thoughtfulness for these girls in the remote villages will be extremely helpful to their personal growth. Such a useful and timely product for these girls and women; they are washable, can be ironed, and are reusable.
Later in December, I will go to the DR Congo to visit the members of COFAPRI, and will deliver the pads to those who need them. I will also teach the women and girls how to wash the pads hygienically and emphasise the importance of this.
You can help too!
The cost of one pack of sanitary pads in rural DR Congo is approximately 5 USD.