Much like a cycle, a tradition is something that is repeated on a regular basis. Traditions can create meaning and context for a group around a particular event or experience. When trying to understand gender equality, it is critical to explore the intersection where tradition and menstrual cycles meet. In an effort to share this knowledge and further the discussion around how we can support adolescent girls in achieving their dreams, we share with you the second in a two-part series based closely on a piece that recently appeared in El Espectador written by María Paulina Baena Jaramillo. In this part, the role of menstrual health education in the Amazon basin is explored as well as how Be Girl, a start-up social enterprise, is working to connect and support a global generation of girls.
Maria Belen Castellanos is part of a team led by Diana Sierra, the Colombian designer dedicated to revolutionizing menstruation for African schoolgirls with her innovative reusable sanitary pads and panties and co-founder of Be Girl. Now, these products are making it easier for girls to get an education in over 14 different countries and communities, including Nazareth, Colombia.
While Maria Belen draws a female reproductive system on the chalkboard, she explains to over 60 girls how the menstrual cycle works, and the different parts of the female anatomy. As she is talking, hands in the classroom shoot up, and students start asking questions that demonstrate the obvious gap in knowledge these girls have about their own bodies.
“Why does my period hurt? If I walk on a creek and there is loose sperm from an animal can I get pregnant? Can I have sexual relations while on my period? If my chest gets swollen am I pregnant? Is it normal to have vaginal fluids?”
According to Carolina Encinales, who works with some of the girls at the school, “this is not a topic that is spoken of at the institutional level.” She also discusses the lack of information given to these students, saying “we do not give them instructions for when they get their periods and, in a way, I have become their menstruation leader and guide.”
However, there are some people within the education system who do not believe it is the school’s place to educate the girls about menstruation. As pastor and principal of the school Jorge Eliecer Mazo explains, “I am not the one to tell them how to do it because introducing sexual education and contraceptives lead to promiscuity.”
Mazo has moved around from place to place, living in Chorrera, Miriti, Pedra, and finally, Araracuara where he has stayed for 15 years. Since February of 2015, he run the Colegio Tecnico Agropecuario Maria Auxiliadora. When discussing sanitary pads and general menstruation health, Mazo aggressively states:
“We do not provide sanitary pads simply because we do not have enough money. We are invisible to the Ministry of Education”
However, while Mazo claims that the school is unnoticed and passed over by the Ministry of Education, the same could be said for the topic of menstruation within the school itself. These important topics are largely dismissed at the school, and are never discussed with the young girls who attend. Therefore, when a girl finally gets her period, she is completely caught off guard, unaware of what is happening to her body. As a young 13-year-old recounts, “It was uncomfortable because nobody had spoken to me about this before.” When asked about available menstruation products, 16-year-old Carol Stephany says, “You have to get pads very far away in Leticia and they give me rashes.”
After witnessing the lack of information and understanding in this community, Maria Belen explains the Be Girl project and mission to Mazo. Be Girl supports girls around the world, including in Africa, the Middle East, USA, and the Colombian Amazon. At the end of the day, girls are girls no matter what part of the world they live in. Be Girl hopes to broadcast the lives, struggles, similarities, and differences of all these girls to a greater population so as to raise awareness and create a global movement.
This is why Be Girl has launched the campaign “Yo quiero que sepas — I want you to know.” This campaign goes beyond simple donation. Instead of just giving a pair of panties to a girl in need, people from all over the world also send letters to these girls. And in this way, the girls know, they are never alone.
Original Spanish-language article by María Paulina Baena Jaramillo in El Espectador; translated by Alejandro Sierra and introduction by Lily Dolin.