In remote Timor-Leste many schools remain unconnected to safe water sources. For some girls, this presents a problem: how do you manage your period hygienically without skipping class? Find out how UNICEF is supporting some of Timor-Leste’s most vulnerable girls with safe, secure facilities for managing menstrual hygiene now.
Getting your first period can be an embarrassing, uncomfortable and downright painful experience. And that goes double when you don’t know what’s happening to you. For girls in Timor-Leste, that’s all too often their reality.
“I was really scared, the first time,” says 15-year-old Cidalia de Araujo Soares, a bubbly grade nine student at the local Catholic school in the rural town of Aileu, which sits in the mountainous centre of Timor-Leste. “I went to my mother and asked how to prevent it.”
Cidalia’s mother showed her how to use sanitary pads, and told her she wasn’t allowed to eat cucumber, or play with boys anymore. Cidalia accepted the curious dietary advice, but pressed her mother on why she was no longer able to play with her friends.
“Mom said, when you have your period and get close to boys, a lot of blood will come,” Cidalia recalls.
In predominately Catholic Timor-Leste, information about reproduction can be difficult to find, and families in isolated farming communities have limited opportunities to learn. While periods are seen as normal, and monthly bleeding isn’t culturally taboo, limited facilities mean managing periods can be difficult. If a girl’s period comes at school, she’ll often return home to manage it, missing the rest of the day’s classes.
Now, UNICEF is working with the country’s Ministry of Education to ensure schools are safe, secure and supportive environments for the thousands of girls in Timor-Leste who get periods.
Water for health and future
“In the past, we didn’t have water here,” explains Umberto Tilman, the 46-year-old coordinator of the school Cidalia attends. A warm, gentle man, he wears an eye-catching jumper embroidered with his name, and chats easily with his young students.
Umberto says that the school used to have an electric pump, and store water for the school’s bathrooms in a tank, but since it broke the school staff must carry water from a well half an hour’s walk away in order to flush toilets and wash bathrooms.
“There’s a significant impact on the students,” he says of the water shortage.
With UNICEF’s support, Timor-Leste’s Ministry of Education is working in five of the country’s 13 municipalities, refurbishing school buildings, connecting school toilets to reliable water pipes, and establishing separate, private toilets for girls.
But it’s not just a lack of water in school that prevents young women from managing their periods with ease.
Lack of knowledge a barrier
Sidalia and her friends in Aileu say that no one explained to them what a period was before it came, and they only found out after asking their mothers.
“We don’t learn about it in school now,” explains 14-year-old Joviana Silvera. “We just ask someone who has it already.” She thinks perhaps she’ll learn about it next year, in secondary school – but that’s a full two years after her first period came.
Several of the girls have younger sisters, and they say they’ll talk to them about managing periods. Some of them have already started the conversation.
Claudina Fatima Novendi, 14, says her 13-year-old sister has already asked her about periods. “She asked me what it is, and how it goes, and she asked me how to use Softex,” she says, naming a common brand of sanitary pad sold cheaply in local kiosks in Aileu. “I told her, because I want her to start learning.”
UNICEF is now trialing community-led menstrual hygiene management groups, which provide a much-needed environment for girls and women in Timor-Leste to talk openly with each other about period problems and how to manage them. For many young girls, it could be the first opportunity they’ve ever had to discuss their period, ask questions, and see that it’s normal for everyone.