In South Sudan, a group of men and boys is trying to break cultural taboos on a topic that often drives young girls out of school: menstruation. Men4Women is distributing menstrual pads to girls while also encouraging boys and men to engage in conversations and advocate policies that make sanitary hygiene products more accessible to girls.
Such a program could have helped Sunday Joseph. She grew up in a poor family of 12 in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. When she reached puberty, she said in Arabic, her family couldn’t afford sanitary pads.
“Whenever my period came, I would use pieces of cloth or sometimes toilet paper to help,” she said.
At school, Sunday was teased, and the shame was too much.
She dropped out, became pregnant, and never went back. Today, she cleans offices to provide for her child.
Ending stigma, by men
Emmanuel Gordon is the director of Men4Women, an activist group of men and boys working to prevent the same fate for other girls and eliminate period stigma by teaching menstrual health and hygiene in schools.
“Boys are the ones that do a lot of period stigma to girls,” he said. “When they see stains on the girl, they laugh at the girl. Why we are involving them is that we are trying to tell them that this is a natural thing.”
At the Happy Angel Primary School, the group handed out sanitary pads and even demonstrated how to use them. Golden Kiden John was one of the girls in the class.
“At first, I was fearing because there were questions, and I didn’t know how to answer them,” she said. “But at the end, I felt good, and I am very grateful.”
Esther Akumu, South Sudan’s director general of gender equality was caught off guard.
“I’m actually impressed, because it’s the first time, I think, in the country for men to talk about menstruation,” she said.
Men4Women is helping girls without access to sanitary pads avoid being isolated and cut off from the community. But they are also educating South Sudanese boys.
Nineteen-year-old Camiss Charles leads some of the classroom discussions.
“Today, I feel so proud because it is good to teach most of the boys so that to encourage the girls. And I’m so happy,” he said.
Akumu says it’s time to break the silence on menstruation in South Sudan, and Men4Women is a good step forward.
“I would advocate that this team come to the ministry, we see how they will progress, and we give them an introduction that later they will have no obstacle when they go to the schools,” she said.