Once a month, the fear of blood stained clothes, embarassment by peers, and discomfort used to hold 17-year-old Nhima Balde back from school, physical activities and friends. Her period was restricting her confidence, and making her feel isolated and dirty because she did not have the materials to adequately manage it.
That all changed last year, when Cadidjatu, her secondary school teacher in Fajonquito, Guinea-Bissau introduced her and her classmates to menstrual cups and provided instructions on how to use them correctly.
“Cadidjatu explained to us how much easier our lives would be if we used the cups and how it would also benefit our health and confidence,” says Nhima, who was at first a little skeptical.
Nhima has become a key influencer, inspiring other girls to procure cups
Feeling a little anxious, Nhima went on to ask her teacher one further question after the lesson, “Will I always be able to attend class even when I am on my period?”
To her surprise, the answer was a resounding “yes”.
That day, Nhima decided to start using the menstrual cup during menstruation and forgo the traditional sanitary pads, or ratadjo, which are made of colourful pieces of fabric. Ratadjo are unhygienic and provide inadequate protection for girls to be able to manage their periods safely and with dignity.
Upon using the menstrual cup, Nhina noticed her fears went away. She no longer feared she’d attract her classmates attention due to bloodstained clothes. She no longer missed school, sports or time with her friends.
“Before I tried the cup, I was using ratadjo to protect my period,” she explains. “But, my clothes were getting dirty and I had to change my pants often. Now, no one knows when I am on my period.”
Today, that statement is the first Nhima uses when promoting menstrual cups to her close female relatives and girls in the community. Through the confidence she’s gained while safely managing her period, Nhima has become a key influencer, inspiring other girls to procure cups from her teacher.
Each cup costs roughly US$6 so girls often have to collect and save money over time to be able to afford it, even if that means forgoing a new blouse or a trip to the hairdresser.
The impact of this word-of-mouth phenomenon is now creating a visible impact on girls’ lives. Girls in the community are now attending school more, with better academic performance, and are healthier and more confident. Prior to menstrual cups, girls often disposed of sanitary napkins either by burning them or disposing them in latrines, resulting in poor waste management and unhygienic conditions. Today, waste management in the community has improved and latrines are cleaner.
“The cup makes us feel cleaner. It has a great value for me, since now no one knows I’m on my period and I can do everything I want to do,” says Fatumata, another participant in the school programme.
The true testament of Nhima’s influential power was convincing her mother to switch to menstrual cups rather than traditional pads.
“My daughter told me that she was feeling great with the cup and that many infections could be avoided by using it,” her mother, Penda, says. “Since then, I am now also using the cup.”
The Government of Guinea-Bissau, in partnership with UNICEF, seeks to ensure the school environment is a place where girls can feel confident every day, including when they are on their period. The menstrual health and hygiene lesson was part of a UNICEF’s WASH-in-Schools (WinS) programme, which teaches girls how to use sanitary pads and menstrual cups, and teaches both boys and girls about menstrual health to break taboos and stigma. The sale of menstrual cups is also working to create a market for affordable, high quality menstrual products in the country.
Zaira Onaindia Rodriguez is WASH Officer in UNICEF Guinea-Bissau. She is engaged in MHM project with adolescents and responsible for information, communication and technical assistance.