Girls Empowered to Tackle Period Stigma and Harmful Practices at Youth-Friendly Safe Spaces
“When I joined the Safe Spaces programme, I didn’t know what was happening to my body. It was the first time I heard about menstruation and how to manage it in a safe, healthy and dignified way,” says Gesemene Omod, a 6th grade student at Wibur primary school in Gambella town, Ethiopia.
Although menstruation is a natural bodily function, the stigma and taboo surrounding it are still one of the main reasons preventing girls from going to school, participating in everyday life, and accessing basic resources for their menstrual health.
“It was not easy to openly discuss with my parents about menstruation, peer pressure, and other topics that I was eager to know about,” says Gesemene, recalling the confusion and frustration she experienced when she had her first period.
Fortunately for Gesemene and other girls, her mentor, Adanech Abdela, was understanding: “We teach [the girls] about the natural changes in their bodies. Some information, like menstruation management, makes girls more comfortable with their bodies and increases their confidence.”
Since she joined the Safe Spaces programme, many things have changed for Gesemene. “Now, I bring the culture of open discussion to my family. I have started talking openly about everything with my mom and I am asking dad for money for my monthly pads,” she says.
Tackling period stigma and other harmful practices among youth
Gesemene’s story is not uncommon in Ethiopia, where menstruation is too often taboo and considered an inappropriate topic of discussion, leading to a lack of accurate information for girls to manage their menarche hygienically.
“Girls may miss school or turn to improvised products such as old rags or scarfs in lieu of safe period products. This puts girls at risk of infection or other long-term health problems,” explains Sumeya Mekonen, UNFPA Regional Programme Officer in Gambella.
But menstruation is also associated with a sign of maturity and is unfortunately taken to signify that a girl is ready to be married. In traditional, rural communities, this can be extremely damaging and potentially dangerous for adolescent girls.
“I was pressured by my family to get married to an older man, who promised a comfortable life. The harassment and teasing from schoolboys was constant. It was difficult to cope with all these changes,” says Gesemene.
Youth centres a safe space to learn about sexual and reproductive health
Across Gambella, UNFPA in partnership with the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) East Gambella Bethel Synodos (EGBS) has established 21 in-school and 11 community-based Safe Spaces where girls meet and openly discuss sexual and reproductive health and other challenges.
“The girls enroll for mentorship and training once a week to discuss various issues, including the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, teenage pregnancy, gender-based violence and child marriage,” explains Ujulu Omod, the representative from EECMY EGBS.
Every year, 1,600 girls like Gesemene graduate in Gambella from the 6-month programme, which for many is a life-changing experience.
As Gesemene states, “Recently, we saved a girl from an arranged marriage by convincing her family. Our mentor also helped a girl who dropped out of school due to childbirth return to school.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of UNFPA – East and Southern Africa.