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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

October 12, 2018

Stories

Period Stories 3 minute read

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From Kenya to Canada, Sabrina Rubli says pulling down myths, taboos and barriers surrounding menstruation is key to women feeling empowered and free. Sabrina founded NGO Femme International to empower women and girls in East Africa with access to education, advice and methods to manage their reproductive health without fear or shame. She tells us why she cares so much about the cause - and why we should, too.

Interview Liane Balaban

LWhat is Femme International?

SFemme International is a Canadian NGO dedicated to empowering women and girls in East Africa through health education, with a focus on menstrual and reproductive health. Every girl who participates in the program receives a Femme Kit, which includes a reusable method of menstrual management — either washable pads or a menstrual cup.

How did the company start?
Femme was founded in 2013 by Ornella Marinic and myself while we were completing a post-graduate program at Humber College. We were discussing how women in rural areas of Kenya accessed water and sanitation facilities, and we soon started wondering how these women managed their menstrual cycles. We did some research and learned that while many people agreed that menstruation was a barrier to girls’ education, very little was being done to change that. Organisations would distribute disposable pads, but we didn’t feel as though that tackled the root problem. We wanted to make sure that we combined education and distribution.

Why is education so important?
The myths that surround menstruation (for example, making menstruating girls use separate water sources or not being able to prepare food to avoid contamination) come from a lack of health education. When girls don't have access to sanitary products they use alternative methods, including leaves, rags, old clothes, even mud or newspapers. These methods are unhygienic, ineffective, and can lead to serious health issues.

Why did you choose to focus on East Africa?
I had travelled and worked in the region previously and had some strong networks on the ground. We reached out to a Kenyan woman I knew who was very involved in her community of Mathare and things grew from there. In 2014 we expanded from Kenya into Tanzania. The gender disparity in East Africa is wide, with literacy rates among adolescent girls being significantly lower than adolescent boys. Tanzania has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage globally, with two in five girls being married before their 18th birthday, and 25% of girls aged 15-19 years have already started child bearing. In communities like the Mathare Slum, the need for improved hygiene is critical.

Is a lack of menstrual and sexual health education an isolated issue to the communities you serve?The cultural taboos that surround menstruation are found in nearly every region, including Canada. In Nepal, the traditional custom of chhaupdhi says that menstruating women and girls need to be isolated during their periods, and they are kept in small huts outdoors for the duration of their period. In many communities, from East Africa to India, girls are taught that menstruation makes them “unclean” and are often isolated in some capacity.

In what ways are North American women also disadvantaged by societal views about women's healthGirls are taught that menstruation is something to be hidden, with some companies even marketing their products as “discreet” with rustle-free packaging, so no one finds out. When it comes to menstrual products tampon companies don’t have to disclose their ingredients, and often they contain harmful dyes and chemicals that are unsafe to women’s bodies. Until 2015 Canadian women were still paying a luxury tax on sanitary products and many states in the USA still charge the ‘tampon tax.’ The issue of menstruation is especially critical when it comes to homeless women, as shelters rarely have menstrual products to distribute to women in need. Additionally, conditions like endometriosis are consistently misdiagnosed because doctors often aren’t trained to recognise the symptoms or dismiss complaints as “cramps”. We need to create a more open dialogue about women’s reproductive health to ensure that they have the education to make the right choices for themselves.

What changes have you observed in the community after Femme International has become involved?
The one word that nearly all of the girls use is “free”. They feel freedom to play sports, to do the things they want to do, to stand up in the classroom, even when they have their period. This feeling of "freedom" is such a powerful image and confirms to me that menstrual health education really helps girls feel confident. When we address menstrual health, we are empowering girls to feel confident in themselves and addressing a root cause of gender disparity. A woman’s body should never contribute to her own oppression. I truly believe that an empowered woman is the most effective catalyst for sustainable change, and addressing her health is essential.

For more information on Femme International, please visit www.femmeinternational.org.