Freetown, Tuesday, August 15, 2017 – Menstruation is a natural process but it is rarely talked about because of cultural taboos. Menstrual hygiene – how to manage menstruation safely and with dignity – has also been largely neglected by the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector and others focusing on reproductive health and education. As a result, the menstrual hygiene challenges faced by women and girls are made even more difficult, and millions continue to be denied their rights to WASH, health, education, dignity and gender equity.

For the past year, Speak Up Africa has been working on filling in the knowledge gap around Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). Why? Because MHM has a long-term impact on women’s health, education and livelihoods but it also impacts the economy, as failing to provide for women’s sanitation needs ultimately risks excluding half of the potential workforce.

Young women in Sierra Leone are being bombarded with negative messages by both the media and through societal pressure. Over time, the effects are manifested as low self-esteem, a rise in teenage pregnancy, misinformation about women’s issues, and more. H.E. Sia Nyama Koroma, First Lady of Sierra Leone has been a strong advocate for the empowerment of young women as a way of countering these negative effects and for the country’s development. The Office of The First Lady (OFL) has developed various programs, events and initiatives for the betterment of the lives of Sierra Leonean people, specifically children and young women.

The National Girls’ Camp aims to empower young women to develop a positive self image, improve their self esteem and make informed decisions in regards to their sexual reproductive health, leadership roles, healthy lifestyle and more, through an action-packed agenda comprised of courses, lectures, networking opportunities, comedy, drama, exercise and sports. The selection process is done by the OFL and its partners, for deserving girls from each region with exceptional school grades, and leadership qualities.

Speak Up Africa has been graciously invited to partake in the 2017 National Girls’ Camp 2017 by the OFL and Solid Investments Group (SIG), and deliver a workshop on MHM. During this interactive session, Speak Up Africa discussed with the girls and learned about their perceptions and attitudes towards MHM. Speak Up Africa explained the different types of MHM tools and intimate hygiene management. Packs of reusable pads from ApiAfrique and key materials on MHM were distributed to each of the 100 girls attending the camp.

Martha and Marie Tondoneh are twins. They are 16 y/o and its their second time coming to the First Lady’s Girls Camp, ‘what we love about this camp is that every session you get to learn about new things and get to hear the experiences of others. We also love to interact with new girls and get to meet new people’. On the MHM awareness session Martha added ‘what we learned during the session is that, as girls, during our period, we should not be shy and feel like we do not belong. It is a normal thing and that does not make us less human or less girls. Menstrual is a sign that you’re growing and different things happen so you just have to be happy and take it as it is’. On women empowerment and the Girls’ Camp ‘Women empowerment is so important because it helps young girls to know themselves, to believe in themselves to say ‘Yes we have a future, we are going to be good people in the future, we simply can be who we wan to be!’’

To address menstrual hygiene is not only to address the four to seven days a month that women are menstruating, but the root cause of gender disparity. When it is properly addressed, it leads to increased overall health of women and girls. It improves educational outcomes as it improves school attendance. It promotes economic freedom by helping women stay in the workforce, and improves the confidence and dignity of women and girls by teaching them that their bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. Women and girls face enough challenges each day, their own body should never be one of them.

Speak Up Africa strives to empower women and girls throughout Africa and thanks to the Fourth Girls Camp in Sierra Leone, a hundred more girls in the country are able to be and feel ‘Young, Empowered and Safe’!