Empowering students as agents for period positivity
September 14, 2020 — Team Fempowered

Our school years are a time in our lives we develop a lot. Obviously we learn about important subjects like maths, science and english, but we also learn important life skills too. As we go through puberty, develop relationships and learn more about ourselves, our school and our teachers should be there to guide us.

But what happens when your school isn't equipped to help pupils through these big life changes, especially menstruation?

Uwingugu Primary School in Rwanda faced this exact issue, until one teacher in particular decided to change things.

The school has around 30 students a month that menstruate, yet until recently there was hardly any dedicated support for those with periods. Not only was maintaining good hygiene made difficult by lack of water access and latrine blocks, but there was little to no education on how to handle periods with safety and dignity.

Niyinambaje Seraphine, language and religious studies teacher and head of “girl’s affairs” at the school, witnessed first hand just how detrimental this was to the education and wellbeing of many students. Despite being such a normal part of life, periods well and truly got in the way of girls learning. Thanks to harmful period taboos, those with periods would often go home, instead of having to face the shame of other students, particularly boys, knowing that they were bleeding.

Niyinambaje, like the team at Fempowered and WaterAid, believes that girls deserved better.

Niyinambaje, language and religious studies teacher and head of “girl’s affairs” in the new menstrual hygiene room at her school

Empowering students as agents of change

With the support of WaterAid, Niyinambaje took on the important role of hygiene mentor within the primary school. Using Hygiene Training Manuals developed and supplied by WaterAid, an initiative was launched to teach students effective hygiene practices and menstrual management. In this Hygiene Club, Niyinambaje arms students with the crucial information that they need to manage their own periods. They are then able to pass what they learn onto their classmates, peers and family members, positioning them as real agents for change within the community.

Niyinambaje also describes how she uses the hygiene club to break down period taboos: “I use the school hygiene club to teach girls about personal hygiene, and also create awareness of MHM (menstrual health management) among boys – this is very helpful in breaking the silence about girl’s menstruation.”

By opening up the conversation about menstruation with those that don’t have periods, we can begin undoing the negative impacts of period taboos including shame and systematic discrimination.

Tuyishimire and Ntakirutimana sitting on a bed in the new menstrual hygiene management room

Making periods practical

Practically, WaterAid also assisted the school in becoming better equipped for managing periods. A new MHM room was built, with a rainwater tank that allows those with periods to clean themselves as needed. The room is also stocked with sanitary pads, pain killers and spare underwear, which Niyinambaje can give to those in need.

Whilst education on MHM is crucial for students, it’s even more important that those with periods are armed with the supplies they need to continue their school day with dignity.

Describing her experiences and showing the positive impact of menstrual education, 15-year-old Tuyishimire said, “I started using the MHM room in March 2019 when I got my first period. I was not scared at all, because we had learnt about girls’ menstruation in our school hygiene club.”

Tuyishimire filling a wash basin to clean herself within the new shower room

Improving life for students, teachers and the wider community

Wonderfully, the initiatives that Niyinambaje has led in the school have had a hugely positive impact. Not only are students more supported as they begin menstruation, but their work in class has come on leaps and bounds.

This is namely thanks to greater attendance, as girls are less likely to leave school or take chunks of time out of their day to manage their periods. Niyinambaje describes how, “On average, a girl on her period needs like 10 minutes to clean herself in the MHM room, and then runs back to class. Previously, this would take an hour.” Every moment out of the classroom adds up and we’re proud to have been able to support this number dropping so drastically!

The MHM block also acts as a respite for teachers with periods. They are able to use the space to clean themselves, change and, if needed, to rest. By providing educators with the support they need to manage their periods, they no doubt have a better experience at work.

Niyinambaje’s work is also having a ripple effect within the wider community. 15-year-old Ntakirutimana explains how she passes the lessons she learns onto her family: “Some of the things I have learnt from the club I share with people at home...What motivated me to talk to her is the fact that good hygiene is a source of life.”

With the help of WaterAid, Niyinambaje has had a real impact on the experiences of those with periods in her community. Not only are her students able to handle menstruation safely and with confidence, but their work in class has improved because of it and they are passing their knowledge onto others that need it.

At Fempowered we are beyond proud that all our profits go to WaterAid, who support projects like this one, so that this important work doesn’t stop! If you want to help us in our fight for menstrual equality, become a subscriber today.