health

These girls are missing school because they're not educated about their periods.

Imagine missing up to a week of school every month just because you’re having your period.

Add to this the confusion of not knowing why you’re bleeding or how this is linked to your fertility. All you know is that during the time you can’t touch boys because you’re “unclean”.

This is the reality facing hundreds of girls in Vanuatu who don’t have access to sanitary pads, nor a proper understanding of what is happening to their bodies.

Girls like Melissa, who feared leakage and being humiliated when the boys in her class found out she was bleeding.

“All the men will look and talk and laugh and I’ll be afraid. So I’ll just stay at home instead.”

Melissa says she worried about what boys will think when she goes to school (Image via CARE Australia.)
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Florence agreed, saying the boys would check girls' skirts when they stand up from chairs when they knew they had their period.

Recently, things have changed for Florence and Melissa. They are just two of the 500 girls CARE Australia has been able to help by providing locally-sourced reusable pads as well as education.

CARE Country Director in Vanuatu, Megan Chisolm works with Vanuatu girls to better educate them on what's happening to their bodies and says that some can be unaware menstruation occurs on a predictable basis.

"Girls don't have the knowledge about what's happening in their bodies, why they're getting their period and what that leads to," Megan told Mamamia.

"Their mothers might not have received that information either and their mothers might not be all that detailed information on to them."

Megan says that without access to sanitary pads and tampons, often due to cost, the girls would use "rags or leaves" to capture their bleeding, and worried about leakage, they would stay home from school.

CARE estimates this can add up to two months over the course of a year - a lot of time for students to miss out while their male classmates continue to study.

To help end this imbalance, CARE has so far given kits containing reusable pads to 500 girls in the Tafea region of the island nation, which includes popular tourist destination Tanna.

Watch: Vanuatu women and girls talk about how the project has helped their school community.

The organisation aims to raise $44,000 they can help improve the quality of life for 560 more girls this year.

Megan explained the kits CARE provides come from a local social enterprise based in the Vanuatu town of Port Vila.

"They're called Mamma's Laef. A group of local Vanuatu women started making the pads and we buy them off them. Every pad we buy, the money goes to these local women," she said.

Breaking down taboos.

Providing kits so their girls can comfortably attend school isn't CARE's only aim - they also want to help break down cultural taboos, or "kastoms", and address high rates of teen pregnancy.

"In Vanuatu, women and girls are not allowed to cook while they're menstruating, they shouldn't touch a boy because they're considered unclean and in some communities, they should sleep in a separate place," Megan explained.

"By having a conversation about periods you can actually start to break down some taboos."

Megan also said that by educating girls and women better on how their body works, they're empowering them to make informed choices and in turn tackling high rates of teen pregnancy.

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Mary, a staff member at Mama's Laef, sews reusable sanitary pads for girls in Vanuatu who have limited access to hygiene products. (Image via CARE Australia.)

A day to talk about periods.

At the centre of the campaign, which has so far raised $9000, is Menstrual Hygiene Day on Sunday 28 May.

"It's really about recognising that girls the world over are missing school and missing out on opportunities because of lack of awareness, lack of supplies and lack of facilities to be able to manage their periods," Megan says.

"No girl should be missing school because she's got her period."

In some areas of Vanuatu girls can miss a week of school every month. (Image via CARE Australia.)

While this fundraising campaign, which ends on 16 June, is focussed on raising money for sanitation kits and education, Megan says CARE has also been working with Unicef on another important project.

"When they've got their period they need to have a safe, clean area to be able to change and wash their pads and lots of schools in Vanuatu don't have this. There's no door on the toilet, it's just a hole in the ground, it's not clean, there's no running water."

To combat this the organisation teamed up with Unicef to improve toilet facilities around 20 schools - for boy girls and boys, complete with a dedicated wash area for girls.

It's a move girls like Melissa, who features in a CARE Australia video about menstruation management project, are grateful for.

Florence says the reusable pads and education have helped her a lot. (Image via CARE Australia.)

"They have a big room inside where girls can change their sanitary pads inside," she says.

"We have water inside the toilets. When we have our period we can change and have a shower inside and even wash our hands too," another girl adds.

Melissa, Florence and other girls also speak of their gratitude at being able to attend school with confidence.

"I was trying to understand things myself and then CARE came and explained everything to us. I feel like when I get my period I'm not worried," Florence says.

"I'm not afraid anymore."

If you would like to donate to CARE Australia's menstrual hygiene crowdfunding campaign please visit Chuffed.org.

To find out more about CARE Australia's projects visit their website.

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