“Yes?” I replied, turning around to see one of my Form 3 female students approaching me.
“May I have permission?” I was Teacher-on-Duty for the week which meant having to field a slew of requests from students to go home early or to skip out on afternoon activities. “Permission to do what,” I asked.
With little hesitation, she responded, “I need to go home to get one of my pads for my period.”
When I arrived at my site in southern Tanzania, I would not have thought that my female students would be so forthright with me, the foreign, male teacher from the Peace Corps who likes to dance in class, reward students with stickers and small gifts, and run for miles through the local villages. Fast-forward two years, and now students feel free and open to approach myself and other teachers concerning a variety of health-related issues.
Last year, Peace Corps Tanzania forged a partnership with Huru International, a female-empowerment organization originating in Kenya with the purpose of providing girls and women with HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and life skills education together with kits of re-useable sanitary pads to help keep girls in school (Huru means ‘free’ in Swahili). When I first heard about Huru’s goal, I was intrigued; with two younger sisters, I imagined myself in their shoes, living in rural Tanzania with no sanitary means of managing my menstrual cycles, missing school as a result, and thus any opportunities in life that follow as a result of education. Even though I was not sure how I’d go about implementing the project as a male, I wanted to see if managing menstruation truly was a barrier towards receiving education for my female students.
Together with my primary Counterpart, who is also male, we surveyed all 150+ female students at our school just to see if there was a need to bring Huru. The results were shocking: 100% of students reported missing school because of their periods, over 75% reported being unable to afford disposable pads, and to manage their periods, students reported using pieces of cloth, pieces of mattress foam, and even paper. The embarrassment and shame felt by students and the unsanitary methods of menstrual hygiene both scared me and affirmed the need to address these issues. While explaining the purpose of applying for a Huru grant to the school staff, my Counterpart summarized the issue; “we cannot empower women if they’re being left behind, and women are going to be left behind if they cannot get educations because they miss school.”
For the first Huru training in the country, I brought three Counterparts, one of whom was male. There were over 25 Volunteers and Counterparts, yet we were the only men in the room. The Kenyan staff from Huru were equally happy and surprised to see males involved in the project, though we often found ourselves speaking generally for the minority sex in the room. While preparing to implement the project at site, scheduling seminars for our female students and their guardians, some teachers expressed their apprehension with males presenting on female hygiene and menstruation, wondering if it would be culturally appropriate. After lengthy debate in the staffroom, we decided we would be there to introduce ourselves first, and then pose the question directly to the guardians of our female students during the pre-Huru informational meeting: “Will you feel uncomfortable discussing hedhi (menstruation) with men in the room?”
On the day of the parents’ meeting, the resounding No! of the 75+ women in attendance lifted my spirits and still does to this day. One mother stood up, “It is very important for men to talk about these issues too!” “Yes, and we thank you so much for bringing this to our girls and to our community,” agreed another. The chorus of thank-yous and the round of applause that erupted soon thereafter were reminders that this project was not only necessary, but would be wholeheartedly embraced and supported by the community.
My primary Counterpart and I have both been asked my we wanted to get involved with Huru International and promoting women’s empowerment. We’ve been met with skeptical comments as to whether or not males can adequately address issues of women’s health or if it is taboo for male teachers to be discussing menstruation with female students in Tanzania. The shouts of no by the parents echo in my ears every time I answer these questions. Ultimately, the goal of my work goes beyond just women’s empowerment, but promoting true gender equality. Issues that affect our girls and women affect all families, and issues that affect families will affect the entire community at large. My Counterpart enjoys using the phrase collective action to assert that problems faced by a particular group in society should be tackled by the society as a whole.
My time in Tanzania has taught me that we cannot segregate issues by implying that the effects of each particular problem are limited in their impacts. While menstruation and unsanitary hygiene practices might have immediate health consequences for women only, the ripples reach each corner of society, whether economically or financially for families who support out-of-school youth or girls who cannot find jobs beyond subsistence agriculture or through family planning and early pregnancies due to a lack of sexual education. By overcoming the initial apprehension of implementing a largely female-oriented project, we have provided health education to over 500 students, both male and female, at two different secondary schools, and have distributed over 600 Huru kits to students and female guardians from four of the surrounding villages. We’ve been able to use Huru as a platform to break down gender barriers, to show our boys that it is not right to mock girls who might be on their periods, to show our girls that they can take ownership of their bodies and sexuality without consequence, and to show the community the power of change.
Why did I decide to take on a huge secondary project whose main focus was on females? I thought of my own sisters. I thought of the clear gap in test scores between male and female students. I thought of the disparities between male and female attendance at school. I thought of the opportunity not only to educate and empower females, but also to increase understanding among males- a vital, yet often ignored, aspect of gender equality. And, anyone who knows me knows I like to be unconventional and shake things up.
I’m proud to say that I was the first male Volunteer to implement Huru projects in his community, just as my Counterpart is proud to say that he was the first as well. We were able to break down the preconception that Huru was a project that would only be able to be implemented by female Volunteers, and now, as Peace Corps Tanzania approaches its fifth Huru training, five other male Volunteers have implemented Huru projects at their sites. We are directly engaging in collective action by showing how people of different cultures or genders can come together for a common purpose. And now, on behalf of my students and students all over Tanzania who have been afforded the ability to focus on studies rather than skirt stains and mocking laughs, I can say “Tunashukuru Huru! Sasa, tuko FREE!”