When Broher Channy got her first period at the age of 16, she was terrified.
“I saw blood and I thought I must be sick or have some terrible disease,” Channy says. “It wasn’t until later that I told my mother and she said it was normal.”
For many young girls in rural Cambodia, sexual and reproductive health education is non-existent. Girls often learn about menstruation from a family member, such as a mother or an aunt. But these women often lack detailed information about how the body works, and are unable to explain to young girls why their bodies change so drastically during puberty. Consequently, some girls are advised to skip work or school while menstruating.
Meanwhile, sanitary napkins are expensive, almost $3 for a pack of six, and occasionally difficult to find. As a result, girls use rags to catch the blood, or use the same maxi pad, an item worn in the underwear to absorb blood, for an extended period of time, leading to infection. In an attempt to save money, Channy, for example, would use the same pad for so long her vagina would itch.
This is the dynamic that a volunteer-driven project called Generation, Education, Period is targeting. In a small schoolroom in the village of Putsor in Takeo province, girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are being educated about menstruation, puberty, sex and hygiene. They are also given kits with reusable flannel maxi pads and an instruction manual.
After the training, the girls return to their communities, where they distribute the kits and relay the information they learned to other women and girls in the village. The idea is to empower them to educate others, breaking the silence that leads to ignorance and misinformation.
“We started the project because we realised that girls and women in rural villages lacked menstrual support, both with [respect to] actual sanitary napkins to use during menstruation and lack of education about menstruation,” explains Margot Marks, who launched the project in Cambodia in September 2016 with volunteers from Australia and New Zealand.
The project is currently focused on the village, but soon it will expand to nearby communes such as Krang Thnung.
Channy, one of about 30 girls learning about her period, says she likes the reusable pads because they are easy to clean. She started using them four months ago and hasn’t looked back. What’s more, she’s excited to know how her body works.
“I’m happy to be sharing this experience with other girls. A lot of girls don’t know about their periods,” Channy says. In fact, of the nearly 200 women and girls the project surveyed in the village, only three knew where the blood from their period came from. Now, however, that is slowly changing.
Sitting around squat tables in groups of five or six on a recent morning, the girls study pictures of reproductive organs. “Ovaries, cervix, scrotum, prostate,” they shout in unison as they label body parts on a diagram. When the translator falters and forgets a word, the girls help her. “Spermatozoid,” they shout eagerly.
“It’s important for them to repeat the words out loud in order to grow comfortable saying them,” Marks explains. “They also talk about their emotions and how going through puberty makes them feel.”
But in this active learning environment, the girls also have a lot of questions. Some want to know why their period hurts, while others ask why their breasts get larger when they menstruate. One participant was scared because her period lasts seven days, and another because menstruation leaves her drained of energy.
“Why does the amount of blood vary? And why do periods come irregularly?” the girls ask. Patiently, the foreign volunteers teach the participants what to expect during menstruation and why they menstruate.
“Your period is as unique as you are,” says one of the volunteers, holding up a plastic model of ovaries. The girls also fashion their own beaded bracelets with colours that help them track their menstrual cycle.
Sek Socheata, 16, says the training is useful because she never learned about her period in school. This year, the government launched pilot health classes in schools, which include some limited information about periods. But generally, experts say knowledge about reproductive health is limited and menstrual hygiene is rarely mentioned.
“Most of my teachers were men, so we didn’t get any detailed information about how these things work,” Socheata says. In a country where sex before marriage is frowned upon, speaking openly about reproductive health can be complicated.
Trat Sokkeang, a 17-year-old who trains women in her village about menstruation, says her family wasn’t happy when she learned words like penis and scrotum.
“They think that if I know these words, then I’ll be more open about sleeping with boys,” she explains. “They say I’m a young girl and I shouldn’t know about these things.”
Still, Sokkeang says it’s useful to know what the reproductive organs are called. “It will help me in life to know the details of my body,” she says, adding that she was angry and scared when she first got her period.
“I didn’t understand. Why do women get this and not men?” she asks, still indignant. “Even now I’m a little annoyed that men don’t have their periods.”
Meng Sothearoath, another 17-year-old trainer, says the older women in her community aren’t as open to the information as the younger girls.
“The young girls are very interested, but the older women are just not that accepting, even if they don’t understand the process that is happening in their bodies,” Sothearoath explains.
Sothearoath has been using reusable pads for six months, and she hopes the cost-saving benefits will eventually lead to wider adoption. “Sanitary pads are expensive, and women don’t want to pay for them,” she adds.
So far, about 400 kits have been distributed in Cambodia. And this week, this new group of girls will go into their communities to distribute more. Meanwhile, Marks says more girls are showing interest in the project as word spreads throughout the area, and those trained are gaining confidence in their ability to teach.
“They’ve blossomed,” she says.