Adolescent Girls Menstruate Every Month, Make Schools in South Sudan Female-Friendly

The last year or months leading to the moment I first got my period, my only source of information was my friends who had already started getting theirs. There was no concrete conversation in class nor was it discussed at home.  When I was older and had other sources of information, I realized that about 90% of that information I got from my friends was myths but I still appreciated it because it was surely better than nothing then. 

So many young girls in South Sudan are at war with themselves, trying to make sense of all the biological changes happening to their bodies with very minimal prior knowledge, skills, psychological preparedness or guidance through the process. Conversations around those changes especially the menstrual aspect continue to be avoided by parents/guardians at home and at school.

It was in that moment when I started to feel like I have no control over my body. It felt like my body suddenly belongs to some men out there who I don’t even know. 

Attempts to educate girls at home on menstruation tend to be done after the first experience and focus on what menstruation means in terms of the girls’ interactions with men/boys. I remember the one time my mother sat me down to have this talk about two weeks after I just got my first period. I sat with expectations of finally being able to understand what that means, how I should go about it etc., but instead she traumatized me. My mother bombarded me with all kinds of “protection” messages, it was in that moment when I started to feel like I have no control over my body. It felt like my body suddenly belongs to some men out there who I don’t even know. 

Menstruation and its management was not the center of the talk as I had imagined. I was simply transitioning to adulthood or rather “womanhood” as I was made to feel; an identity that I constantly became aware of every second of my day but couldn’t embrace with pride otherwise I was inviting unwanted men/boys, and God forbid if anything happens, it would totally be my fault, so burden and embarrassment found comfort in what is a supposed to be a natural phase of my being. 

Despite the fact that school going girls spend most of their day in school, in terms of Menstruation and Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), Provision of menstrual materials and facilities, schools in South Sudan are extremely female unfriendly. There is no up-to-date comprehensive nation-wide data on the impact of poor MHM on school going girls in South Sudan, especially in schools but from the SNV “Girls in Control” Compiled Findings from Studies on MHM of Schoolgirls where they assessed 49 schools in Eastern Equatoria.

Menstruation is not just about bleeding and managing it, it’s about the girls’ safety, health and for school going girls, it’s a major factor in their academic excellence.

Some of the reported challenges girls face in schools include; lack of privacy as one of the main issues, some schools do not have latrines, others have latrines which are not sex segregated, some schools have no water points within. Girls raised concerns of buys laughing at them, name calling, isolation, humiliation, and to some extend “being approached for sex at that time of the month since they have a high attraction to the opposite sex during that time”. Some girls are restricted from movement during menstruation, others undergo cleansing and ritual performance and a handful reported feelings of discomfort as they are seen as unclean by the community during that time. South Sudan is quite diverse so different communities approach it differently but there are similarities across cultures. 

Menstruation is not just about bleeding and managing it, it’s about the girls’ safety, health and for school going girls, it’s a major factor in their academic excellence. Its beyond just privacy in terms of constructing sex-segregated latrines, but the level of cleanliness of those latrines, access to water, soap and decent facilities for disposal of used sanitary materials within those latrines. All the schools I have been to, both primary and secondary especially in Juba and its outskirts, do not meet the global Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) standards, although the level varies from one school to the other; Toilets are extremely dirty, the existing water points are far from the toilets and for some schools it’s strictly drinking water, not meant to be “wasted on other things”, no proper disposal facilities and I can’t even talk about soap, that’s a luxury. 

Most schools have no emergency sanitary materials for when a girl unexpectedly gets her period while at school. Menstruation is not clearly articulated in the curriculum so it’s not part of the general learnings for both boys and girls. Females make up only 12% of South Sudan’s teaching population, some schools have no female teachers so when opportunities to have these conversations arise, they are headed by mostly male teachers who lack comprehensive knowledge on menstruation and its hygiene management. To make it worse, the manner in which this content is often delivered simply turns the session into a laughing matter for boys while girls just wish for the ground to swallow them in that moment.

Girls are made to feel ashamed of a normal biological bodily function they have no control over and the psychological abuse they are subjected to for this is unthinkable.

The school environment is already very challenging for girls even when they have their sanitary materials with them, so one can only imagine what they have to go through when they unexpectedly get their period in class, and or stain their uniform: they have nowhere to clean up or get sanitary materials within the school premises, some have to walk long distances back home while bleeding and miss school on those days. Girls are made to feel ashamed of a normal biological bodily function they have no control over and the psychological abuse they are subjected to for this is unthinkable.

A few lucky schools benefit from Nongovernmental Organizations that come to mentor girls and, or provide dignity kits and establish school clubs where these conversations continue to be held within schools. However, that’s not enough and neither is it sustainable.  To protect girls, provide for their health and contribute to their academic performance, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) must be intentionally embedded in all the National Education and Health especially WASH Policy Frameworks including budgets and streamed down to all levels of programming.

This will improve sanitation and MHM facilities in most schools across the country. In terms of education, this will also ensure menstruation is not only clearly articulated in the curriculum but the science textbooks used nation-wide are context specific and progressive in ways that transform attitudes towards menstruation.

Removal of all taxes on imported sanitary materials was one of the recommendations from the prilimary report on the South Sudan National Budget 2018-2019 snapshot analysis of the budget done by The Institute of Social Policy and Research (ISPR) and South Sudan Democratic Engagement, Monitoring and Observation Programme (SSuDEMOP). If such recommendations are nationally taken into serious consideration, this would be one big win for many South Sudanese girls. Sanitation and MHM is a critical part of children’s health and well-being while at school, this should not be left to individual schools to determine how they wish or choose to go about it. The protection and serenity of girls at school is a national responsibility.

Embracing My Natural Hair Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

“Your hair is so beautiful; can you make mine like yours?” said the little Tibetan girl 

In 2017, I was in  Dharamshala, India with 27 other youth peacebuilders from some of the most conflict-ridden countries in the world for the “Youth Leaders Exchange with His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, a program by United States Institute of Peace . Dharamshala since 1960 has become home for Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama after he went to exile after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising

Our hotel was strategically located near a small shopping center so we took walks whenever we had some time to. It seemed to me that this area rarely saw black people come around, my braided hair was a conversation starter for some. People stared at me in what felt like amusement to me, a few courageous ones would walk up to me and say “you are beautiful, where are you from?”. I will admit, the staring was uncomfortable sometimes, but I never felt any hate, the stare wasn’t threatening, what I felt was rather curiosity. When we visited the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School, the fascination on those little girls’ faces was just so beautiful to watch. “Your hair is so beautiful; can you make mine like yours?” said one little Tibetan girl

When I was younger, like many other things I never paid much attention to, hair was one of those. I spent most of my childhood between Yambio and Yei in the Southern part of the then Sudan. It was during the Sudan civil war and those where Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) control areas, there were bigger things to worry about.  It was when my family moved to Uganda where I started high school that I started noticing hair dynamics. In Uganda, it was more intentional, it wasn’t just about keeping your hair short but it was a particular kind of short, anything beyond that length was punishable.

I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew

Extremely short hair for all girls with the kinky kind of African hair in most schools has become an unquestionable norm in most schools across Uganda. The first high school I joined had one white girl who was allowed to keep her hair. That was the same narrative with other schools we interacted with. While girls with kinky African hair were monitored and harassed to constantly shave their hair, white and mixed-race or girls of color were allowed to keep their long natural hair. 

I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew. At home, in the neighborhood and everywhere I went, all I saw were women wearing all kinds of weaves, braided hair and very few with their hair in its natural form or had dreadlocks. Those that wore their own hair had it relaxed. So when I had opportunities to do my hair especially during those slightly longer school holidays like Christmas, I would relax my short hair, braid or wear a weave.

Throughout my university I visited salons to remove a weave and put one right back even when I realised it was damaging my hairline

When I finished high school, one of the things I was most excited about was the fact that I would finally get to grow my own hair. The sad reality is, I was excited to freely grow it hidden in braids, relaxed or under weaves. Throughout my university I visited salons to remove a weave and put one right back even when I realised it was damaging my hairline. I graduated from “synthetic weaves to “natural weaves” even when it felt nothing naturally relatable to my natural hair. I spent a lot of my student upkeep trying to keep up with these “natural weaves” trends because it wasn’t just about wearing a weave, the kind of weave you wore articulated your “status and stylishness”.  

For the longest time, I never embraced my own natural hair, it never felt good enough, it felt untidy and too burdensome in its natural form. There are unspoken standards of the quality of “admirable” natural kinky African hair one can wear proudly; it has to be of a certain texture, volume and color that I felt mine didn’t meet. 

In 2015, I decided to cut my hair. I cut my hair because I was tired of weaves, my hairline was really getting damaged and keeping up with fancy weaves was just starting to feel like such an unnecessary expense. But even when I cut my hair, I didn’t leave it in its natural form, I relaxed and colored it, so I still frequented the salon to maintain it including braiding it here and there for two years. It wasn’t any less burdensome and neither was it cheaper either but I still committed to it. Those two years unconsciously made me slowly realize that there was actually nothing wrong with my hair, I started falling in love with my own hair. It was only then that I started seeing how beautiful my hair actually is. “I do have beautiful hair”, I started convincing myself in the mirror.

By the end of 2017, I had stopped relaxing the growing hair to match the already relaxed part so my natural hair, “growth” they refer to it in salons was now visible. When my growing natural hair was long enough for me to trim the relaxed hair on top, I started braiding it more and more. In April 2018 when it felt long enough, I locked my hair. That was the best decision I ever made. For the first time, I felt like I became my true self, I felt free.