Menstruation conversation moved forward by community theatre and sewing in the Eastern Cape

Girls around the world, and particularly in developing countries, dread menstruating. They can’t get proper sanitary wear and, even if they could, they often don’t have underwear to hold pads in place. Many school bathrooms are unhygienic, and some schools don’t have running water for girls to keep their hands and bodies clean. 

Ahead of Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, we asked Lindsay Kelland of Rhodes University about the Siyahluma Project Group, which is working to change the discussion on menstruation.

When was the Siyahluma Project Group launched and what sparked the idea to establish it?
The initial research group was formed in Grahamstown, in late 2013.
It was a partnership between the critical studies in the Sexualities and Reproduction Research Unit, the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics and Rhodes University’s community engagement office. We conducted a survey of grade 11 learners in the Eastern Cape to identify the menstruation-related challenges faced by girls in schools.

In 2014, we formed ongoing research partnerships with 24 schools. Surveys were distributed, coded and captured for about 1 100 learners. We also formed a partnership to create reusable sanitary kits. That was when Siyahluma was born.

We initially heard about problems with access to sanitary products from a participant in the Young Women’s Dialogues at Rhodes’s community engagement office. But we knew that we could only sustainably address the problems in our particular context by conducting a needs assessment in the Eastern Cape because there wasn’t much information about these issues. We only found one South African study, dealing with KwaZulu-Natal, that had anything to do with schools or schoolgirls.

What are the prevailing attitudes towards menstruation that you find among young people in the Eastern Cape?
There is a great deal of stigma and a lot of taboo surrounding the topic, particularly because of the links between menstruation — and particularly menarche, the onset of menstruation — and sexuality. Girls who completed the survey indicated that they don’t often have these conversations with their mothers because it is inappropriate to talk about sexuality. It’s often deemed taboo to speak to men: young girls report wanting to talk to their fathers, boyfriends or male friends to help them understand what is happening to them, but they can’t because of this.

What we found when opening up these spaces for conversations in schools with younger children was that both males and females are keen to talk, learn and have a lot of questions about menstruation. A grade 7 boy even asked: “Is it real?” — which indicates that these spaces haven’t previously been opened up.

There is a significant amount of secrecy surrounding menstruation in the Eastern Cape and this expresses itself as a drive to conceal menstruation. Our data also shows that the consequences of being “found out” include not only humiliation and shame, but a very real danger of sexual violation as well. 

The project uses theatre and has introduced modules to get children talking about menstruation. It has also set up a community sewing group. How important is this multidisciplinary approach?
It’s key. The people who form the Siyahluma group bring a lot of different skills and resources to the table — from research and theatre skills to community links and curriculum development. The ability to rely on the members of your team is so central to getting things done and moving forward. 

Tell us a bit about the sewing project.
In 2014, a new stakeholder from the community approached the research team. A group of five foster mothers from Grahamstown Child Welfare Services had come together with the idea of starting a social enterprise to produce reusable sanitary products. Our research team decided to partner with this initiative as we’d found that it’s really hard for schoolgoing girls to access modern, reliable, hygienic products affordably.

What comes next for the Siyahluma Project Group?
The project is moving forward. Papers and policy briefs are being written and master’s and honours students are using and furthering research that’s already been done. We’ve also partnered with clinics in rural Glenmore and Ndwayana. A partnership has been formed with Days for Girls International in the United States, which ensures sustainability in the long term. —

Natasha Joseph is The Conversation Africa’s education editor. See “Menstruation is part of life”

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