Foundation tackles period poverty

Survey finds many schoolgirls can't afford sanitary products

Sunday Observer staff reporter

Sunday, December 16, 2018

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AN average of 24 girls in 29 high schools across Jamaica request sanitary products each day from guidance counsellors, according to the head of a foundation that gives primary focus to female reproductive health.

Shelly Ann Weeks, founder of Her Flow Foundation, told the Jamaica Observer that she unearthed the data from a survey she conducted between October and November this year.

The information, Weeks said, was collated by the foundation during its study of schoolgirls receiving lunch subventions.

“We have a quantifiable number of about 100,000 Jamaican, pubescent girls who are registered on the National School Feeding programme, which is created for students who cannot afford lunch. We can assume that if they cannot afford lunch, then they cannot afford menstrual products either,” she told the Sunday Observer while promoting her newest book, It's My Body. Period.

Describing the problem as “period poverty” Weeks said that her focus has always been female reproductive health. “One of our biggest objectives is to eradicate period poverty in Jamaica, and we are starting with the schools,” she said.

“For a lot of these girls, they are choosing between their education and their periods. Some of them stop from school when they are on their periods, just because they don't have any products. Some of them end up reusing one pad for multiple days which, of course, you know has its own medical and health issues,” Weeks said.

She also argued that the cost of menstrual products can be prohibitive and that although some sanitary pads are considered relatively cheap, adolescent girls, as well as women, sometimes cannot afford these necessary items.

“One of the problems is that the price of menstrual products continues to increase, and of course, most salaries don't move at all, and some mothers have more than one daughter. While the cheapest pad on the market is a little over $100, it is a lot of money for someone who only has $100 and needs it to buy food as well,” Weeks said, pointing out that she made this observation during her interaction with girls in secondary schools across Jamaica.

A Sunday Observer check at Corporate Area supermarkets found that the average price for a 1o-pack of sanitary pads is $217 across five brands; while an 18-pack amounted to $400 across 3 brands. The average price for an 18-pack of tampons, across two brands, works out at $702.

There is ongoing debate in other countries about whether sanitary products should be free. For instance, in the United Kingdom, a national campaign dubbed #FreePeriod is calling for free menstrual products for children in receipt of free school meals.

But here in Jamaica schools do not make such provisions by way of policy.

However, Weeks advocated that sanitary pads should be free, arguing that having a period is not a matter of choice, but a biological function of a woman's reproductive cycle.

Meanwhile, Weeks' Her Flow Foundation has been partnering with other entities to provide sanitary products in schools.

“What we have started to do is to funnel products to the schools through the foundation, and we fund it through grant funding. The last school tour that we were able to do in October, we got the funding through the US Embassy, and we also partnered with Stayfree and Lasco Curves to do that school tour,” she said.

“We were able to give products to 29 schools, and we also did an educational session with girls and boys for the co-ed schools, just educating them about puberty, their bodies, and period, and what to expect — just preparing them for the transition into adulthood,” Weeks said.

Another objective of the Her Flow Foundation is to break the stigma and shame around menstruation. To this end, Weeks said that more public discourse is needed.

“Periods will stop being taboo when we start talking about it — that's the only way to solve that problem. As long as we keep it as this dark little secret that all women learn how to keep, and we have to hide it from the men and they'll be offended if they even see the wrapper, and they're going to die if you send them to buy one. As long as we keep treating periods like that, then it will continue to be taboo. We have to lift the veil, we have to break the silence, and I think the most effective thing to do is to start talking your business; tell your story,” Weeks said.

Throu9gh writing and application of storytelling in her advocacy, Weeks explained that open discussions with girls and boys have helped to remove the general timidity and silence around the subject.

“It is important that we stop hiding female reproductive issues from men and boys, because they live with us, they are a part of our lives, they came out of our bodies. They are directly affected by female reproductive health issues,” she argued.

“What we have experienced when we go into the schools and we include the boys in the class is that they are very responsive, they are very interested. They want to talk about the products. In their own way they have observed their mothers and even their sisters having to deal with periods, and seeing how it affects them. They really want to find a way how they can help, and they become more empathetic. So I think a lot of good things can come out of exposing boys to female reproductive health issues,” Weeks said.

“Periods need to stop being taboo because we are all affected by periods. We would not be here if our mothers didn't have a period,” she added.

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