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Reversing the Curse: An End to Period Poverty

Written by Eryn Austin-Bergen & Tatum Bergen, photographs by Jenny Stoecker

Reversing the Curse: An End to Period Poverty

A girl’s first period is her first step into womanhood. Many girls, however, are never taught that menstruation is a normal process—their first period comes with fear, confusion, and a lack of confidence.

500 million women and girls do not have access to menstrual products or safe, hygienic places with water to use them. Without this, women and girls face discrimination and embarrassment, unable to attend school or do everyday tasks in the public sphere. 

But when girls are given access to the resources they need to manage their periods and when they are educated with healthy, hygienic habits, their confidence grows. They realize that they can participate and be valued members in their communities, no matter what time of the month it is.

Reversing the Curse: Timkate's Story

“When I noticed my first menstrual cycle at school, it made me feel ashamed, and the schoolboys teased me by looking at the blood on my clothes.”

Timkate is a sixteen-year-old girl living in the rural, Ethiopian community of Feyine Tarano. Sadly, her experience is typical for girls across the Sasiga Mid-Highlands. Due to cultural taboos, families don’t talk about women’s menstrual cycles. “Some people saw menstrual blood flow as a curse rather than as a regular healthy process,” Timkate explains.

Timkate, a sixteen-year-old girl in Ethiopia, was empowered to manage her period.

As a result, young girls are in the dark on the practical aspects of managing their period. Further pressure is put on them by poverty—girls (and women!) living in rural communities don’t have access to sanitary products, clean water, and private spaces. “I saw the menstrual cycle and I was put in tension as I did not know how to control it. When I am [having my period], I prefer to be absent from school…I feel the need to hide.”

Understandably, Timkate felt embarrassed and a deeper sense of shame crept over her because she wasn’t equipped to embrace this fundamental piece of her identity.

Teen girls in rural Ethiopia miss multiple days of school every month, putting their learning at risk. Many girls drop out altogether. To make things even more difficult for Timkate, she didn’t find support at home. “My family [members] are also…always frustrated by my being absent [from school]. Thus, as a girl student, I am a victim.”

To help “reverse the curse”, FH Ethiopia conducted health education to help teenage girls navigate their menstrual cycles and distributed menstrual hygiene kits. These kits provide girls with practical resources including washable pads and soap. Life began to change for Timkate.

Gathered in the safe space of a girls-only school club, Timkate and her friends had the opportunity to learn how to care for their bodies and minds, ask sensitive questions, and feel “normal” again. Empowered with resources to manage their periods, Timkate and her peers are heading back to school full-time.

“After working with FH, I’ve observed several changes in my life, including a decline in school dropout and absenteeism, an improvement in self-confidence, and an awareness that [my period] is a natural process that happens on its own… [My menstrual] concerns, my health, and my academic achievement were all significantly improved over what they were before.”

It takes brave, intelligent girls like Timkate to choose to just “go with the flow” when it comes to their periods and education to change the future. They’re willing to try something new and risk the taunts if it doesn’t work everytime. For Timkate, it’s worth it. “My hope is God,” she confidently declares, “and my future dreams are working to change my life more than the current [situation].”

Because of TImkate’s perseverance, her younger sister, Million, won’t have to face this stigma when her time comes. Instead, she’ll walk into school confidently, never having known a reason to be ashamed at “that time of the month”.

Reversing the Curse: Guatemala & Uganda

Recently, 500 teenage girls in Cotzal, Guatemala received sustainable girls’ hygiene kits that included a carry bag, a bar of soap, one washcloth, three reusable sanitary pads, eight panty liners, one discrete carry pouch, and a set of instructions on how to use the kit. They learned about personal care and the correct use of sanitary accessories.

Teenage girls in Cotzal, Guatemala, receive sustainable girls' hygiene kits.

These kits are a powerful tool that equip girls to manage their periods with dignity and comfort. They enable girls to go to school without the stress associated with menstruating. Through initiatives like these, girls and women are empowered to move through their communities with greater equality and freedom.

In Bukiende, Uganda, parents couldn’t afford to buy their girls expensive disposable pads.  “This greatly affected them academically as they lagged behind,” Deputy Headteacher Rebecca Nambuya explains the impact of girls missing school due to their period.

So, they launched a program called “Let’s Keep Our Girls in School'' to improve school attendance and academic performance. The program taught girls to make reusable pads at school; and it worked! 

Bushira (left) and Deputy Headteacher Rebecca Nambuya (right) display the reusable pads from the "Let's Keep Our Girls in School" program.

“With reusable pads made available, our children will attend all lessons, have more time to read, and for sure our performance is going to be better!” Miss Rebecca beams. The program even trained participants how to teach their peers to make reusable pads so they can share the skills.

Bushira, a student who participates in the program, says, “I no longer fear periods because I know it’s a normal process of growth. I now make my own reusable pads from the materials given to the school by FH.” Her headteacher encourages her to be involved in school activities, read and complete school. 

“I will use the skills to make my own pads and even help my friends so that they don’t miss school,” Bushira shares. The program now runs in seven schools!

Reusable pads made by girls in Rwanda.

An End to Period Poverty

Menstruation is nothing new. In fact, the average woman spends seven years of her life menstruating. Then why is period poverty still an issue? Low-income, lack of access to sanitation and hygiene products, and cultural taboos create barriers for women and girls to manage their periods with confidence. 

But while menstruation is normal, period poverty doesn’t have to be! When girls are empowered to understand and care for their bodies during this time, they will no longer need to miss school, suffer embarrassment, or be confined to their homes during their periods. 

This Menstrual Hygiene Day, we can take action to help end the stigma around menstruation and join mothers, daughters, sisters, and peers to reverse the curse of period poverty. Today, you can give a girl access to sanitary pads and health education with Go With The Flow or empower a girl with gender equality and livelihoods training with Girl Power!


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Food for the Hungry: Reversing the Curse: An End to Period Poverty
Reversing the Curse: An End to Period Poverty
This Menstrual Hygiene Day, we can take action to help end the stigma around menstruation and end period poverty
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Food for the Hungry
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