The Effects of Menstruation on The Education Of Girls In Somalia
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This article is the first of 3 articles that all deal with menstruation, gender and girls education in Somalia. The second article will be specifically on the importance of having female teachers in schools as a tool for promoting hygiene and sanitation among girls in schools and the last one will be on the importance of the provision of sanitary kits to girls in schools.
The Effects of Menstruation On The Education of Girls In Somalia
Introduction and background
This article is an end product of a number of meetings held in the period end of January 2014 and May 2014 in Garowe, Puntland State of Somalia where at least a series of 11 meetings took place which aimed at exploring the link between menstruation and girls' education. The meetings envisaged on bringing together the stories, voices and experiences of young adolescent girls as well as older married women on the issue of the effects of menstruation on girls and their education. Three types of age groups were interviewed; young unmarried girls, young married women and/or enrolled in universities and who are also mothers and/or wives and older women in order to obtain diverse information. Furthermore a group of women representing various civil society organizations were also interviewed. There were a total of 8 questions formed from 3 thematic discussion points that the respondents responded to and they all evolved around:
1. The knowledge of respondents about menstruation in general
2. The traditional customs and their relationship with maturation/menstrual management practices, and the
3. Management of menstruation and hygiene practices.
The discussions showed that there was a big gap of knowledge and practice between the various age groups. The following sections summarize the major findings as well as outcomes of the discussions.
Effects of monthly periods on the daily lives and self esteem of women in Somalia
To begin with many women agree that menstruation starts at the ages 9-13 years. Most of the women, if not all were of the opinion that menstruation was a natural event that happens throughout much of women’s lives, but they also agreed that it is often a topic which is seldom openly discussed in Somalia. For example, many women lack sufficient or accurate knowledge on menstruation. Many women do not understand how menstruation happens in the body, what actually causes it and what exactly happens in their bodies during menstruation. There are misunderstandings and mistaken beliefs passed on by families and communities.
Almost all girls in Somalia are circumcised with the FGM type called Infibulation which involves the cutting off of all the lipia majora and lipia minora, all tissue and the closing of the entire vagina while leaving a very small opening, usually the size of a matchstick. Menstruation in general negatively affects the lives of all women in Somalia. Shukri Hassan, a young unmarried woman aged 16 explained that she, like many other girls, becomes extremely sick with abdominal cramps during her menstruation each month and she vomits alot on all the days that she is menstruating. The entire family is involved in caring for her at this time of the month and someone is usually at home for her sake. “She gets very sick, sometimes she faints because the (menstrual) blood doesn’t come out” Shukri’s mother explained ... because she is all sewn up and this leads to blood accumulating and staying inside the womb. To empty the bladder is a major isue as it takes a long time. Sometimes there is infection because of urine retention and Shukri as well as 14 other respondents explained that they recurrently have bladder and/or other forms of infections. The married women explained that with the Sunnah type of circumcision blood flowed much easier but the girls argued that the pains are still more or less the same.
Dont go to school
Shukri and at least 15 other unmarried girls also explained that they normally don’t go to school when they are on their menstruation. Older married women experienced these pains and complications alot less. This is is most certainly the case in schools where is no running water and with poor sanitation.
Notions of chastity in the Somali culture
Understanding notions of virginity and chastity among women in the Somali culture is very important. Suffering has to happen and goes hand in hand with being female. If you sit with a group of Somali women anywhere in Somalia and talk about FGM, they will condemn the practice. But the thought of not cutting off the clitoris is also very unthinkable. So much bullshit and many fables have been written about how bad and ugly the clitoris can get to scare mothers off. Also certain cultural manifestations and attributes are so intact in Somali society that they continuously reinforce that thinking and reminds mothers of how bad the clitoris is. It is believed that the clitoris can grow and grow and even outgrow man's genitals. It is also believed that the clitoris stinks. Some even believe that if a baby's head comes in touch with the clitoris the baby will be automatically handicapped. There is a lot of fear and fright about among girls who are growing as they are still forming their identity. Girls who have gone astray and broken social and cultural norms are said to not have been cut; “she is carrying the thing and therefore not a good girl”, they all re-echoed. Somali women have been robbed of their own thinking. Patriarchy and the patriarchal nature of the Somali society have institutions in place that keep the fear and bondage alive. It is about time that women got up, woke up and got their act together.
A menstruating girl is generally expected to make less movement and not doing so would be frowned upon. In the Somali culture, girls are discouraged to drink alot of tea before marriage or to open legs too wide or even ride a bike or a horse as this would temper with the young girls virginity. According to older mothers, young unmarried girls don’t have as heavy flows as married women. There is a link mothers make between virginity, being infibulated and marriage and the flow of menstrual blood. Young married girls are believed to not have as heavy a flow as married woman. Mothers also believe that having had a child automatically makes one’s menstrual flows heavier. When a girl gets pain every month during her menstruation, mothers proudly announce ‘The blood is not coming out, she is sick because of that” and all women shake heads in sympathy in collective recognition. But the paradox is that mothers knew this would happen to their daughters before the cut; they have gone through it themselves, their mothers have gone through, their other sisters have been through it and they do it to their innocent daughters as young as 4. Mothers have seen many girls suffering and they have seen enough pain in their lives and in their daughters' lifetime. They can do better to inform and educate their daughters better but mothers choose to cut off their girls. Menstruating girls are exempted from participating in Islamic activities, for example they are not supposed to fast or pray during menstruation but they are not prevented from going to school.
The young girls were extremely shy to talk about these issues in the presence of married ‘motherly’ women because it involves gentials, sexuality, etc. Also admitting or even insinuating to have a 'normal flow’ would mean that one is not chaste, or not properly sewn up or infibulated or even not a virgin. And so young girls have to go with the flow in the presence of elderly women, but they do talk openly amongst themselves. This notion of chastity is something that is deeply rooted and encouraged in the Somali culture because a chaste, shy, all sewn up, virgin girl will bring alot of luck and honour to her family. Mothers explained that as women got older their menstrual flow got alot less and irregular, meaning the menstruation can be away for months and only come for a day or two. But it’s all about experience. Older women are more experienced and therefore deal better/more effectively with periods then young girls. Girls are more shy and hardly ever talk openly about such topics and most importantly not so well in the presence of mothers. That is why separate discussion were held with the girls only. It is also often times the older women who in Somalia talk in the media about such taboo topics.
Leaking at school and staining uniforms
Furthermore, other than the pain, the other major reason why girls don’t go to school when menstruating is for fear of leaking and staining their uniforms! The girls literally freaked out when discussing this point! This point was elaborated on by many of the girls who explained that sometimes while they are at home and they’d sit somewhere for too long or woke up in the morning from sleep, they’d find stains on their bed and/or clothes. But at school things are different. The girls fear teasing by boys at school if they accidentally stained their uniforms. The girls explained that there are various names the boys call such “careless” girls". Such boys call the girls some derogative names and insults and the girls dont like it. The girls often don’t have a place to at school for help or to find a uniform/clothing or tampons or even a place where the girls can wash their clothes and hang them up to dry. The girls also explained that there are no or very few female teachers in schools to whom they could go to for advice and to and seek assistance from. The destructive attitudes and behaviour of boys bullying girls in classrooms or in schools who have stained their uniforms with menstrual blood is one of the most dreaded worries that girls have. It is their biggest nightmare. Even after many long days, weeks or months after such an embarrassment the girl in question will feel uncomfortable in that particular school. Others are afraid to stain themselves and therefore opt to stay indoors at home that whole week.
There were several cases mentioned of girls changing schools because of the labeling/stigma, while one girl was mentioned to nearly have committed suicide. All of the women and young girls explained that girls who are bullied should leave that specific school if the school doesnt take action against the bullying boys. “It is better for her”, they all echoed. Schools must provide spare uniforms, good toilets, tampons, soaps to their female students. Additionally, while school girls preferred to use disposable tampons, the older women preferred old traditional cloth, napkin or their own undergarments called gorgorad. The older women explained that the tampons made them feel insecure because they “could easily fall out”. Some girls reported that they washed their menstruation undergarments once or twice a day during menstruation in order to reuse them. There are also restrictions to the mobility and behaviour of young unmarried girls during menstruation. In conclusion, menstruation is not something good according to the respondents; the majority said they felt bad whenever they are menstruating because it makes them uncomfortable in some way or other.
Solutions women use to protect leaking
Most of the women interviewed were engaged in some sort of activity that benefited them financially. Some owned small businesses while others independently run community based organisations yet still others market stalls in the market place downtown or nearby villages while others were students. Mothers as breadwinners is a common site in Somalia. The men are either in war or engaged in discussions and plans to have one while others have joined pirate activities, or joined radical groups or have simply died. Almost all of the respondents preferred using pieces of cotton cloth to tampons or pads. There was some fear, especially among the older women about the use of pads. They explained that they had heard from other women that pads were unhygienic and contained lethal chemicals which caused cancer or infertility in the wombs of women. These women explained that there were a number of strategies and tools that they use to prevent leaking. To begin with women wear more underclothing such as 2 petticoats and/or 2 pants. Secondly, they’d put a piece of fluffy cotton under the cotton cloth they would use as a pad to absorb the blood in. Other women used tissue paper to have the same effect, the idea is that the fluffy cotton or tissue paper would absorb most of the blood and hence prevent leaking. Younger girls seemed to be less knowledgeable about the issue and preferred reusable pads to cotton cloth.
Salt to kill germs
Some women explained that if proper hygiene did not take place, there would be a potential for bacteria growth/infestation. Older women explained that they boil the menstruation clothes or used salty water to get rid of stains and germs. Others explained that they used old cloth and wrapped it with new cloth, this way they spared money and resources. Fardosa Ismail, one of the young mothers who actively participated in the discussions explained that women generally use big or large pieces of cloth which can absorb blood quickly for example cotton or old clothes. Educational information sharing does not take place for example on personal hygiene and marriage in schools or at home. One young woman concluded in one of the discussions that many girls and women get all kinds of infections or are vulnerable to getting infections during the menstruation period because for example, many girls and women use re-useable pads/re-usable sanitary kits made from pieces of old cotton clothes which they wash and use every day or even every month for many months. This lady explained if not washed and dried properly bacteria can develop on the cloth and later be transferred to the private parts of the girls.
Very little information
There is no information sharing that takes place between girls and their families and/or between girls and school staff. Unlike other African countries, Somali girls are not instructed about hygiene standards to be observed during menstruation. Mothers in the Somali community do not discuss anything that has to do with sex, private parts or menstruation issues with their children. Adolescent girls have very little information about menstruation before they experience their first menstruation and this ignorance leads to various reactions including worry, shyness, embarrassment and nervousness. Another significant finding is the lack of adequate education about hygiene management of menstruation and the provision of facilities for disposal of menstrual materials. This leads to menstruation tampons litter in school toilets or even between the streets. This situation is worse in rural communities where access to information is much more difficult.
In a culture long accustomed to avoiding delicate concerns about adolescent development and where women traditionally stay at home to help raise younger siblings, cook and clean for their families while the sons continue their educations and eventually find careers and help look after elderly parents, information sharing is not-existent. The reasons why young women drop out of school as teenagers are deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of the region. It is important to consider the effects of menstruation on the education of girls. Any intervention would have to build around these effects and what the girls and women think are solutions. While the issue of education affects both genders from all socio-economic backgrounds, the argument that women with an education background can help their husbands earn an income and help support their families is finally starting to draw attention.