By Ariel Miller, ESRAG Newsletter Editor
Girls and boys in Zambia are discovering their power to help each other succeed in school and prevent terrible dangers including HIV/AIDS, thanks to Ending Period Poverty for Equal Access to Education, launched by the Rotary Clubs of Ndola-Central in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province and Minehead in Somerset, UK. The first goal is to equip girls so they no longer have to miss school during their periods. Participating girls now have access to cloth and sewing machines to make their own reusable pads – so this certainly qualifies as a circular economy, pollution-prevention project.
But the benefits go far beyond sustainability. The Rotarians are persuading boys to stop mocking girls: instead, to advocate for them. They are bringing role models to schools to talk about difficulties faced and surmounted on the way to rewarding careers. They invite students to let their imagination fly: where do you see yourself in the next five years? Both boys and girls are enthusiastically mastering the skills to make the pads and other products they can sell as young entrepreneurs. They are learning to be leaders and leaping into sports.
It all started with listening. Richard Robbins, a Minehead Rotarian, was born in Zambia and attended Itawa Primary School as a child. On a recent return to the country, he visited the school to ask what the current students might need. “The school requested menstrual hygiene training since many students are poor,” explains Nkonde Chola, President of the Rotary Club of Ndola Central.
He and Robbins brought their clubs together to make it happen. RC Ndola-Central is providing cloth, sewing machines, and classes at three schools so the girls will overcome “period poverty:” missing school or even dropping out because they can’t afford sanitary supplies. The Zambian and English clubs teamed up to raise the funds through a high-profile aerobics fundraiser organized by RC Ndola-Central and a district grant won by RC Minehead.
Once face to face with students, the Zambian Rotarians also started by listening. They asked students about the pressures they face, their exposure to alcohol and drug abuse, and what they know about how to protect themselves.
“At the first training, we asked the girls to tell their stories about reaching puberty,” says Chipampe Chishimba, a health educator and member of RC Ndola-Central who counsels adolescents as the Dreams Facilitator for the District Health Authority. “One girl confided that when her menses began, she had no idea what it meant, because no one had ever told her about it. She thought it was an illness, but waited three months before asking her mother.
“Girls being brought up by their fathers in single-parent homes don’t feel they could possibly talk to them about menstruation,” she adds. “In our culture, men are not supposed to be involved.”
Shame and stigma imprison girls. “We realized that many girls are confined alone during their period,” Chipampe reports gravely. “If girls come from a household making less than USD $1 a day, giving them disposable pads is not enough. They have no other recourse but to tear up old clothes.”
Bringing up this scary, taboo topic proved a relief to the students.
“Most of the students were excited that they could get information – even young girls not yet at puberty,” says Chipampe. “We organize focus groups that are age-specific: 10-14, 15-19, and 20-24. We let them know that the menstrual cycle is the way God created things: there is nothing unclean about it. The most important thing is to teach girls how to handle it”.
Rotarians encourage students to delay their sexual debut. “We try to advocate for abstinence as the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and HIV,” Chipampe explains. But she can refer students who are already sexually active to services they need. The health clinics offer contraception and instruction on how to use it, including condoms.
“The Ministry of Education and the Ministry introduced a re-entry policy so teen mothers can come back to school after delivering their babies – usually at a different school to avoid stigma,” she adds.
When the first training was offered earlier this year, teachers didn’t understand the importance of including boys, and didn’t sign any up. But when they were invited to the training at Mapalo Primary School, boys took on the challenge with relish. ““They were excited, and said they would help their sisters. They did well in making the pads – in comparison with the girls,” Chishimba says with a laugh.
“Our message to the boys is this: if you hear about a girl missing school, encourage them to go to school and defend them from hazing,” says Ndola-Central President Nkonde Chola. “Support your sisters, don’t laugh at them!”
The Mapalo boys have proudly announced they are forming a club in January which will meet on Fridays to sew reusable pads to sell in the community. Students are also learning to make doormats out of recycled plastic, and bracelets. The Rotarians are partnering with a major Zambian non-profit, Development Aid from People to People in Zambia (DAPP Zambia), https://www.dappzambia.org/ to provide training in craft skills and entrepreneurship and to connect students to Village Banking.
Ndola is a major commercial city near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. This puts girls at high risk from the sex trade. All young people are under pressure from drug dealers. “Teen pregnancy and early marriage are serious problems,” adds Chipampe. “The highest rate of HIV/AIDS is among adolescents.”
Training students how to make legitimate products gives them an alternative to drug deals or succumbing to the sex trade. Young people who’ve dropped out of school can enroll in DAPP Zambia’s apprenticeships in metal fabrication and carpentry.
Through DAPP Zambia, students also connect to team sports: netball for girls and football for boys. Coaches include volunteers from Portugal. Local organizations sponsor tournaments and trophies.
In the participating schools, Rotarians provide training on the reproductive health cycle, period poverty, how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and how to prevent it. The goal is to train at least 3-5 teachers in each school and 50 students – including boys – in each school, who will in turn train other students.
The project’s reliance on safe space for discussion and training students as peer educators affirms their leadership and sense of agency. Just look at the young people in these pictures and you’ll see yourself that it’s true!