Thursday, July 26, 2012

The birds and the bees (+ pictures!)

Hi Everyone!

Hope you're all well!  Things in Bushenyi are winding down for the term!  Last week was our final week of classes, and after 2 weeks of exams our students will be out of here for another holiday, and we'll be off to Europe!  (could we be any more excited?!?!)

But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Before the term finished off we put on a big event that we'd been building up for the last few months!  So, Saturday, we held what we called a "Health and Lifeskills Workshop."  Essentially, a souped up version of "the birds and the bees."  We divided our students into groups of girls and guys, and took the whole day to talk about issues of lifeskills, HIV/AIDS and STIs, reproductive anatomy, relationships/gender roles, family planning, and general health.  The girls also learned all about making RUMPS (reusable menstrual pads) - more about that later!  The theme of the day was "Health teachers for a healthy Uganda."  We hoped that through equipping our students (Uganda's next new teachers) about many of these important issues, the knowledge can spread out to their future students in the primary schools, as well as friends and relatives that we'll never have contact with.  Working with teacher training creates a lot of opportunities for ripple effects - sustainable work that we may never see the fruits of, and we hope that his can be one of those times!

The need for a workshop like this is huge!  Not only is Uganda one of the few countries where HIV/AIDS prevalence is actually on the increase, but many of our students have such limited knowledge about their bodies, their options in regards to their health, and what be practically done to prevent things like HIV transmission and unwanted pregnancy.  This year alone 3 girls have been sent away from school due to unwanted pregnancies, and there are surely more to come.  Although our students are in the 17-23 age range, chances are good that nobody has talked to them about many of the issues we confronted on Saturday.  There is an abundance of misunderstandings and complete myths in the minds of our students (i.e. America not only created AIDS, but has a cure for it and is not sharing it with Africa, condoms spread cancer, washing yourself with laundry detergent can prevent unwanted pregnancies and HIV, etc.)  So, we really tried to get down to the basics and equip our young adult students with factual knowledge and the opportunity to make good decisions. 

The original impetus for the event came from a grant I received from the Minnesota Returned Peace Corps Volunteer association.  The grant is all about teaching the female students at the school about reusable menstrual pads (RUMPS) and helping them teach the primary school girls (P5 - P7) about them as well.  As I described in my grant application:

One challenge commonly faced among the young women of Uganda is the ability to attend school regularly and consistently.  On top of gender related duties at home, long distances traveled to get to and from school, and availability of funds for school fees and school related materials, many girls are also unable to attend school during their monthly menstrual cycle.  Many girls do not have access to proper materials to manage their menstrual cycle.  Instead of using sanitary pads or tampons, some girls resort to using rags, socks, newspapers, banana leaves, or feathers.  Others use the same soiled pad for days on end, while others simply stay home and miss school while they wait for their cycle to end.  In some cases, girls find a “sugar daddy” who will buy them things (including disposable pads) in exchange for sex.  Clearly none of these options are conducive to a girl’s development and each has the potential to increase the risk of sexually transmitted infections, low performance at school and high dropout rates.  In addition, the shame and confusion created by the cultural lack of communication about reproductive health issues often contributes to low self esteem and negative self image.

This project aims to address the lack of knowledge and abundance of misconceptions about reproductive health among young Ugandan women.  In addition, it seeks to provide an opportunity for girls to create hygienic, inexpensive, environmentally friendly, reusable menstrual pads.  This project will teach future teachers the skills needed to effectively and accurately teach reproductive health lessons, as well as provide the materials for workshops to create reusable menstrual pads.  Not only will it empower future teachers to speak to their pupils about reproductive health issues, but it will empower girls to manage their menstrual cycle in a hygienic and affordable way, thus eliminating the danger of missing school or making high risk decisions simply because “it’s that time of the month.”

On Saturday the girls not only learned about why RUMPS are a good option for them and their primary school girls, but also had the chance to make a set of RUMPS for themselves. (I should backup and include that there was a lot of prep work to make this happen!  Over the last few months, I've been cutting fabric, towels, ribbons with abandon - collecting buttons, needles, winding thread, and putting together over 300 RUMPS kits!  Each one consisted of enough material to make 2 pads and 3 cotton towel inserts, along with a card of thread, needle, and buttons to make "wings" on the sides of the pad.)  Each student also got a manual with a lot of helpful information about reproductive health, answers to common questions, and directions for teaching about and making RUMPS.  (Thanks to PCVs Chelsea, Bethany, and Audrey for sharing your excellent manual with me!)  When our students get back from break next term, I hope to support many of them as they lead health and RUMPS workshops in their individual primary schools during student teaching.  The girls are super excited to share the knowledge they have gained!  Many of them are already planning their own workshops, and some have already even bought materials and intend to get started at home in the village during their August vacation!  I was encouraged to see the passion with which the girls embraced the project and their eagerness to continue to spread what they've learned!

But, we figured, why make the workshop only for the ladies?  Why not do more than just create RUMPS?  So the day ballooned into an all out health/life-skills, both gender event!  And we're so glad it did!  There was great participation, great excitement, a feeling of general thankfulness for the knowledge our students received!  And.....hopefully there will be a great impact too!  Our big hope was that our students would at the very least leave the workshops knowing the facts, so that they could make (hopefully good) informed decisions about their health and their lives.

We also were fortunate to be joined by 3 staff from the Uganda Peace Corps office, and many of the PCVs and volunteers from our region (thanks to Dan, Bailey, Nick, Andrew, Marianne, and Susie!) 

Our friend Susie snapped lots of great pics from the day!  I put them up on facebook, so if you're interested in checking them out - click here!

Thanks for reading - we love and miss you all!


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