Brace Yourselves...MHM is Coming to Kamariny, Kenya
Despite the fact this will be the third country in which I have taught, the nerves still get me. After the formalities of the group photo and the introduction by the headmaster Robert, Kevin (founder of Cross World Africa) and the other men leave and I am left standing alone at the front of the classroom. Fifty-one young, curious faces stare at me, waiting for me to start talking. I gaze around the room, making eye contact with a few of the girls. When I get close, a handful of them giggle and hide beside their classmates. With a deep breath, I begin.
Smiling, I introduce myself in Swahili. I’ve been practicing a short paragraph all week with the kind staff at the High Altitude Training Center (HATC). The girls giggle and respond to my attempt at their language and I relax. Feeling ready for my lesson, I start by drawing the outline of USA on the board to explain where I come from and where I went to university. The girls, up to this point, have been left in the dark about the project. They knew I was coming in to teach, but they didn't know the content. Time to pull the string (hah...get it?) - but how?
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I draw a series of dashes on the board, prompting them to guess letters to fill in the blank spaces. At first, no one raises their hands. I beckon them to guess a letter- a single letter- to break the ice. As one girl gets brave, so does another. And another. And suddenly, MENSTRUATION dominates the board. For some of these girls, this is the first time they’ve heard this word while others are familiar with this natural phenomenon. One student bravely raises her hand and provides a definition for me. The ice is broken, the cat is out of the bag, and so begins the project: breaking menstrual taboos through puberty guidance, a sanitation solution, and female empowerment.
However, there are obstacles still to be met. The day before my first class, I met with three female teachers from Kamariny Primary to discuss my curriculum and introduce them to the Ruby Cup. They were eager to hear more about the product, how to use it and how to keep it clean. As excited as they were to learn about Ruby Cup, one turned to me with a “sensitive” question.
My stomach dropped. Coming from America, with its post-sexual liberation society and strong women's rights movements, I am free to make my own decisions on menstrual health products without fear of ramification to my social status. These girls, in this part of Africa, aren’t as lucky. To me, these menstrual cups are a no brainer. Sustainable, reusable, and comfortable- this product has given me period positive experiences for almost a decade. I no longer have to rely on toxic wads of cotton or wasteful pads. But these benefits seem to waver in the face of the Kamariny teacher's question about virginity. Given the fact that 8,000 cups have been distributed in Kenya last year, I know that this question has been asked and answered before. If I am here to shatter menstruation taboos, let me be brave enough to break the silence around hymen and virginity taboos as well.
For those of you like my boyfriend (a masters student at an Ivy League university) who don’t know what or where the hymen is- let me tell you. The hymen is a mucous membrane that partially covers the vagina. It does not fully cover the entrance, as some believe, for if it did, what would women do when they are menstruating? Hymen comes in different shapes and sizes, the most common being a crescent moon. The truth of the matter is that 1) the hymen doesn’t always “break”- it more commonly stretches and 2) many different activities can affect the hymen. Running. Horseback riding. Tampon use. You name it. Some women, who are sexually active, can even have an intact hymen. The point is is that this little membrane is an unreliable indicator of virginity. Use of a menstrual cup, or tampon for that matter, does not take away one’s status as a virgin. Only intercourse can.
If education is empowerment, will this change how the teachers feel about this product? Will it change how the girls feel about this product? At the end of the day, it is their choice. The whole point of this 12 week workshop is for me to equip these girls with menstrual health knowledge so they can make the decision that is best for THEM and THEIR bodies. Period.
Besides, who wouldn't want to be part of this squad?