There has been much excitement surrounding the new Female Hygiene Program in Shirati, Tanzania. The Female Hygiene Program started this summer, with the aid of Faye Phillips who was awarded a Wesleyan University Patricelli Seed Grant to provide a safe space where young women are invited to learn about their bodies, puberty, healthy relationships, and proper hygiene and care. These young women are encouraged to participate in fun activities and have an open dialogue with female community mentors. In this post, we interviewed the two mentors (Linda Atieno Arot, a professional Health Educator originally from Kenya, and Judith Mbache, one of Maji Safi’s Community Water Workers) that have made the Female Hygiene Program such a success.
Q: What are the issues that Shirati women face? What have you heard and seen?
Linda: As for women in Shirati, first and foremost, they don’t understand their biological features. They don’t know how bodies work, making them not understand what is happening in their own body. Young women don’t know how to prevent pain associated with monthly periods or how to go about tending to it.
They use local materials and, sometimes, you find that they contract some viral disease or fungus from those materials. When the bleeding comes, they don’t know how to help it. They don’t know what symptoms of diseases look like, and so diseases can live for a long time without any treatment. In Tanzania, there are more male teachers than female, so little girls fear opening up when they start their period. By the time they begin their period, they are not ready because they do not have enough knowledge. They are afraid that something is happening to their body, and they don’t understand what is happening because nobody has taught them.
Judith: Some women and girls are very poor, as is their whole family, so they don’t have any sanitary materials to use. This makes them afraid as they wonder, “What am I going to use when I’m bleeding?” Maybe a young woman lives with her father and brother, leaving her to wonder, “Who am I going to ask for help?”
Linda: The girls don’t feel free.
Q: Why are you excited about the Female Hygiene Program?
Judith: I am happy because those girls who are nearby me, whom I live with or teach, can know this subject before they reach the day of their first bleeding. So when I teach them, I am studying who is afraid, and who is not afraid and I come to understand the family from which they come. It makes me feel free to talk with my children. I am happy to teach them how to prevent getting pregnant. I am happy to make them understand before they are in that situation so they can make knowledgeable choices and know what they are doing. From the Female Hygiene Program, they know about the changes in their body before they occur.
Linda: With me, I’m a woman, and I’m proud of being a woman. Because I was never taught how I could protect myself, I am very concerned about the young women who are attending the Female Hygiene Program. I want to help them learn how to protect themselves while teaching them about female hygiene. They can protect themselves from contracting various diseases. I’m also happy because before we didn’t have a program like this. The number of girls who are getting pregnant is so high and I think that with this program, that the number will be very low. Families can use locally available hygienic materials during menstruation in place of pads. Poor families can’t get the money for pads. Through this program, girls can also know how to tell other girls, spread the word and get others to come to the Female Hygiene Program. This way, we join hands and make the goal of Tanzania to know and create awareness about female hygiene.
Q: Describe the program and its goals.
Judith: For the participants of this program, we began working with the singing and dance girls in the office (ages 9-16) who will become junior ambassadors as we teach them about female hygiene. They were timid before, but when we continue with them, the fear disappears, and they ask many questions. When we demonstrate, they are free to ask and they can demonstrate too without any fear. Some of them already have their menstrual period, so when we ask them questions, they are not afraid to answer us. Our goal is to make them teachers themselves.
Linda: We want to help the girls to open up themselves, let them know the changes that take place in their body, and to make sure they understand what is the menstrual period. They also learn the courage of not being afraid of whatever they are undergoing. With that, we hope that we will use the girls to go out to other children, so that they can be ambassadors of their knowledge.
Q: How has working with 3 generations of women been for the development of the program? Do you think each generation brings a different angle/positive aspect to the dynamics of the group?
Linda: When you find a girl who got the information about her period from her sister, she got very recent information. The one who is being taught by grandma is being taught that you shouldn’t go out of your house when you have your period, which is information from a long time ago. The different generations all have different perspectives. Even student to student can teach each other, and this is valuable. Q: What do you foresee as challenges in this program?
Linda: The venue could be a challenge, because the girls are used to the Maji Safi Office. There are young children here, these girls are the oldest, and they want to be free. We can lack finances, some think they would be coming to receive something, to be given something, but maybe we are not capable for issuing them. Also, you might find that with the number of children in the class, sometimes only the two of us handling a big class could be difficult. It will force us to divide the class, and with dividing it, the number will also increase. We will have to look for another person to assist. Transportation can also be a problem. We are coming from very far, and so are the girls. That can be a problem. Some are very interested in this program, but they come from very far. It will make us to go them, which will also need to be financed for us to get there. Also, younger or older sisters could be in the class, and they won’t feel comfortable because their family member is present – this could be a problem. It depends on how old, how confident, and how free you are.
Maji Safi has been amazed by the support we have already received to keep this program running. We are excited to be the newest partner of Lunapad’s Pads4Girls program. They have generously donated 250 AFRIpad kits (reusable, eco-friendly pads) to support the Female Hygiene Program.
Additionally, on November 9th, the Maji Safi Female Hygiene Program held its first community performance. Over 550 Shirati residents came to the Maji Safi office to view the female hygiene education presentations (songs, dances, and skits) performed by the young women of the group.