March 2019
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Catherine James Njau, Tanzanian English Language Teachers Association, Moshi, Tanzania

Menstruation is an important issue affecting girls’ education, but teachers and educators rarely speak about it. They reality is that many young girls don’t know what menstruation is and they often don’t have a safe space to discuss the challenges they face during their periods with a trusted adult. If girls do not have access to proper menstrual hygiene products to safely care for themselves during their periods, they are more likely to miss school, and their academic performance can suffer as a result. In this article, I outline why it is necessary to teach about menstruation in schools and share how I use drama to help Tanzanian girls open up about this taboo issue.

The Kuleana organization is an organization in Tanzania that educates girls and boys about life skills and menstrual hygiene and provides girls with reusable menstrual pads. This group was created to solve the problem girls face when their menstruation period causes them to miss school. One of the great challenges these girls face is not having disposable pads or enough money to buy them.

Tanzania is a multiethnic country with more than 120 different tribes. Some of the tribes share their traditions and customs, but others are different. For example, tribes like the Maasai define menstruation as unclean and consider it shameful to sit together with the girls who are menstruating. For the Chagga, girls and women are not allowed to cook food for their families during their period. These are just two examples of the stigmas Tanzanian girls face concerning their periods. This situation confuses girls, and they often don’t know facts about menstruation.

When it comes to menstruation in Tanzania, everyone has their own beliefs. For some, it is not normal to discuss the issue in front of men and elders. This situation forces girls to use unclean methods to manage their periods, including using clothes, rags, toilet paper, cow dung, leaves, and tree bark. As an English teacher, life skills coordinator, and founder of the Kuleana organization, I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet with primary and secondary students in Tanzania, specifically in the Kilimanjaro region where I have been working for about 15 years now. I have found that girls here face great challenges in menstruation management.

During my teaching experience, before I began manufacturing reusable sanitary pads, I helped girls by selling them individual disposable pads, because they could only afford one at a time. Sometimes I gave them freely to those who needed but could not buy them. Riah Werner, who was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in my school at the time, introduced me to reusable sanitary pads made in Kenya by the NGO Huru International. I got the opportunity to attend a Huru workshop in Dar es Salaam and learn about these issues for the first time. I distributed the pads to the students who were in need at my school. The project was successful because many girls liked their pads, so the rate of girls missing class hours reduced. I taught them about their bodies’ changes, menstruation, and life skills.

I received a grant to distribute more pads to girls in my region, but importing pads from Kenya led to great challenges of taxation and transportation. From there, I decided to produce my own product, which I call Waridi pads. Manufacturing the pads locally works very well, and the girls like and enjoy using them.

From this point on, I decided to start the Kuleana organization, to teach girls and boys about life skills and reduce the stigma around health issues. I also help girls fly in their education by giving them reusable sanitary pads, which they can use for about 5 years. This has had a great impact on the girls, who have been able to attend classes during their menstrual periods. The education, which we provide to both girls and boys, also has brought great changes to them and our society, by reducing stigma about menstruation.

Keep Them Flying is an approach to community-based drama that I use in my work through the Kuleana organization. Girls have a good time while learning about their bodies’ changes and facts about menstruation. Through this organization, girls are given a chance to demonstrate through the arts the challenges they face during their periods. Using drama and songs, the girls speak to their teachers, family members, and communities and share what they know about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, early marriage, and pregnancy. This helps them to reduce some stigmatization that still exists in Tanzanian society. From this teaching and the knowledge they received, we developed the project “My Body, My Choice.” These words strongly empowered them to increase their rights and help put them on a path toward social change.

When I was teaching life skills through drama in a secondary school, girls dramatized the potential consequences of the problem of menstrual management. Our drama involved a girl who needed money to buy pads. Her mother had passed away years before, so she went to her father for the money, but she was too shy to explain directly why she needed it. Her father chased her away, and the girl didn’t get any assistance. She decided to visit a shop near their house. When she met with a male shopkeeper, the girl explained her problem by showing him pads on the shelves. The shopkeeper agreed to help her, if she would have sex with him. The girl agreed with him, and from there the relationship began. Later, the girl got pregnant and was chased away from school because Tanzania doesn’t allow girls to continue with their studies after having a pregnancy. In Tanzanian culture, no one is there to speak about the problem of early pregnancy and how to avoid getting pregnant, because girls under 18 years old are not allowed to use contraception. The Kuleana organization provides girls a voice to penetrate the interior of the country and speak about these challenges.

Girls and boys both need to be taught to understand their bodies’ changes and how their behavior will affect their life. Also, through this teaching, parents and guardians also learn to understand their children, what affects them, and different solutions to help them. Through projects like this, teachers and parents will be in the position to reduce dangerous taboos that exist in society.

Catherine James Njau is an English teacher in a Tanzanian government school where she facilitates different activities and teachers training. She also coordinates life skills and menstrual hygiene education clubs. Currently, she is a regional coordinator of the Tanzania English Language Association, which is an affiliate of TESOL; founder of the Kuleana organization; and a student at the Open University of Tanzania, where she studies linguistics and literature. She has been featured in English Teaching Forum’s My Classroom section.
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Next Issue's Theme: Social Justice and the Arts
How do social justice and the arts intersect with language teaching? What arts projects have you done with your students on social issues? Submissions due 15 April, 2019.