By Rowena McNaughton
IIrene Whittaker-Cumming has to pause to count before she can relay how many refugee camps she has worked in. Each time her work contract is set to end she considers leaving the field but, sure enough, when these thoughts start, her battered mobile phone will ring with another desperate ex-colleague from a far-flung land on the other end asking her to join them. Another war, another forced migration of people whose only belonging is an innate will to live.
Whittaker-Cumming’s specialty is women’s health projects and from the depths of makeshift refugee camps, generally in the searingly hot sub-Saharan desert, she has seen too often into the eyes of women deplete of dignity. Women, who simply by being women, and having to menstruate, are often ostracised from their own communities. And that’s a battle for the aged; young girls face a harder time, with many simply giving up on their chance of education to miss the shame they feel when faced with little but a thorny scrub for privacy, and stinking rags and newspapers for pitiful comfort.
The recent female drop-out rate for African girls at schools is frightening. The United Nations Children's Fund, for example, estimates that one in 10 school-age African girls either skip school during menstruation or drop out entirely because of a lack of sanitation.
“They miss three or four days of school and find themselves lagging behind, and because they don't perform well, their interest fails. They start to think, 'What are we doing here?' The biggest number of them drop out in year five or six,” reported one health worker.
Cultural taboo, poverty and lack of understanding about menstruation all form part of a pattern of behavior among many people in remote African communities that has fueled a gender inequality trend that has left women powerless for too long. What can be done?
In almost every rural community you will find a woman who is brave enough to speak out about her unhappiness, but one of the most devastating aspects of this tragedy is how well documented gender inequality has been.
In Cameroon, for instance, where Whittaker-Cumming’s attention is now focused, women have relatively little civil liberty in regard to freedom of movement. Many young girls are married off by the age of 12, and in fact a United Nations report estimated that just under 40 per cent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were married, divorced or widowed. In this context, men have a supercilious power base which researchers agree has helped fuel the high violence rate against women.
Lack of legal protection for women is part of the story: “Spousal abuse is not even viewed as legal grounds for divorce,” said a health worker. “Rape might be a criminal offence, but men are exempted from punishment if they agree to marry the victim.” With no legal barriers, why would men want to stop?
Ill equipped by simply not having the means to buy sanitary goods and living in a man’s world, menstruation for females in Cameroon can be a monthly horror story.
The issue, say advocates for gender equality, is not merely fairness. The World Bank contends that if women in sub-Saharan Africa had equal access to education, land, credit and other assets like fertilizer, the region's gross national product could increase by almost one additional percentage point annually. Mark Blackden, one of the bank's lead analysts, said Africa's progress was inextricably linked to the fate of girls.
"There is a connection between growth in Africa and gender equality," he said. "It is of great importance but still ignored by so many."
In Cameroon, health workers have listed the lack of access to sanitary products as one of the most demeaning, yet apparently most easily reversible predicaments facing women. But they know, as do the women themselves, that there are overarching factors and the picture is much more complicated.
Cultural taboo is part of the story: “It is often taboo for a woman to let anyone know that she is menstruating, or to participate in community life,” says Whittaker-Cumming. “Every month can be a trial for these girls and women as they try to find menstrual products on a meagre income and are forced to keep their menstruation a secret.” Desperation and lack of income often leads to the use of unhygienic makeshift supplies like unclean rags or newspapers, often women’s only choice.
How to respond? “The necessity for health information is massive, specifically for women who live in rural areas and have less formal education,” says Whittaker-Cumming. “Most central is women’s lack of access to the sanitary products that are essential to their health, convenience and dignity.”
The pressure on girls to drop out of school peaks with the advent of puberty and the problems that accompany maturity, like sexual harassment by male teachers, ever growing responsibilities at home and parental pressure to marry. Reports indicate that female teachers who could act as role models are also in short supply in sub-Saharan Africa: they make up a quarter or less of the primary school teachers in 12 nations, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Increasingly, international organisations, African education ministries and the continent's fledgling women's rights movements are rallying behind the notion of a "girl friendly" school, one that is more secure and closer to home, with a healthy share of female teachers and a clean toilet with a door and water for washing hands.
In Guinea, health experts report that enrolment rates for girls from 1997 to 2002 jumped 17 percent after improvements in school sanitation, according to a UNICEF report.
Given the role poor access to sanitary products plays as the release trigger for the tide of discrimination, for Whittaker-Cumming it is only natural that it is here that intervention must come in. After teaming up with Veronica Kette, a Cameroon health worker, the duo are set to give menstrual cups to 400 women, identified as community leaders, throughout rural villages in Cameroon.. The cups can be re-used for ten years.
Earlier this month, a pharmaceutical company backed the pilot project. In theory, if the trial proves successful a mass dissemination programme is on the cards.
The women empowerment, health and environment benefits could potentially be enormous. Those watching know that success lies with the Cameroon women taking ownership of the project. We all wait.
Whitaker-Cumming and Veronica Kette were the winners of the Nelson Mandela Graca Machel Innovation Award arising out of the 2010 CIVICUS World Assembly. To learn more about the award and the World Assembly visit http://civicusassembly.org/.