Regina Ngondeumbaye remains seated at her desk, waiting with her classmates at the appearance of a Spanish gynecologist who has come to talk to them about menstruation. A few minutes ago, Sister Queen, the English teacher at the San Francisco Javier de Toukra school in Chad, sent all the boys to the library. Ngondeumbaye complains that her classmates make fun of girls who are period spotted. “Having the rule in Chad is complicated. In class we are always exposed. At home we talk little with the parents, nobody has told me anything about it ”.
Laura de Mingo is a gynecologist at the Severo Ochoa hospital in Leganés. Before her arrival in the Ngondeumbaye class, less than a month ago she had met Jesuit priest Camile Nodjita Manyenan in a Madrid coffee shop. As soon as she found out about her profession, Nodjita told her about a problem that she had in her head and for which she could not find a solution. “Many girls from the San Francisco Javier school, of which he was the principal, did not come to class and I did not know why. When I found out that they weren’t coming for their menstruation, it made me feel bad, ”she recalls.
Adding up all the period days during the school year, a girl can miss a month and a half of class, which means a significant disadvantage compared to the rest of the students. According to data from Unicef, a woman menstruates for approximately seven years during her life and about 26% of the world’s population is of reproductive age.
Nodjita explained to Dr. De Mingo how the social reality in which Chadian girls are immersed hits them from an early age. In the worst of cases, and all too often, his life cycle begins to blur shortly after turning ten, with genital mutilation; continues with the first menstruation, which appears as a trauma that no one has told them about, dropping out of school, forced marriage with a much older man, mother of a large family before reaching the Spanish majority and ending with alcoholism before thirty.
Adding up all the period days during the school year, a girl can miss a month and a half of class
The priest told the gynecologist how some of the school’s students, like their mothers and that most of the women in rural Chad, do not have access to sanitary products. Sanitary napkins are a luxury item that you cannot afford to buy. They substitute pads for rags or even, in poorer areas, tree leaves or dried herbs, to deal with their period. Hygienic conditions in the country are poor and the lack of appropriate places to replace a compress or the lack of water in the latrines turns menstruation into an ordeal. According to the United Nations1,250 million women do not have a private bathroom and 526 million – the population of the United Kingdom, Mexico and the United States combined – completely lack any toilet, not even a shared one.
De Mingo understood the problem and thought of a possible solution. Finally, she traveled to Chad with 300 menstrual cups donated by the Enna company, to carry out a project with the Ramón Grosso Foundation. His work consisted of giving informative talks in schools and women’s associations. She talked to girls about menstruation and the changes puberty brought about in their bodies. She explained the advantages that the menstrual cup can offer in conditions such as those experienced daily by Chadian women, a fantastic tool to help women who cannot afford to buy pads. He handed out a drink to each attendee and monitored their use.
The menstrual cup is a transvaginal device that collects blood during menstruation. It has a high durability, up to ten years, and only requires washing it each time it is emptied and boiling it before each use at the beginning of the cycle. “There is a very strong cultural barrier with regard to virginity and the use of vaginal devices,” says De Mingo. Girls are concerned about losing their virginity with the use of a menstrual cup or tampons, because it would be a drama for their future marriage. The older students asked the doctor about the most opportune day of the cycle to have sexual intercourse without becoming pregnant. Sister Queen, the nun who served as a translator for Dr. De Mingo, reminded the girls of the importance of using condoms.
What most surprised the doctor was the lack of information that women had about their own anatomy, the questions that adolescent girls asked, as well as the fears and taboos in place. Very few girls at school knew how to explain what menstruation was. Another of the students’ main concerns was pain during their period. “They thought that it is inherited from mothers to daughters, which is a symptom of sterility, that they must become pregnant so that having children reduces their pain; a girl even told me that drying clothes in the sun was bad luck and increased the pain ”, says De Mingo about her experience. The doubts he encountered in meetings with adult women were not very different.
Camille Nodjita clarifies that the tradition of prohibiting some activities for women during their period, such as cooking or having sex with their husbands, comes from ignorance. In the past, it was not known whether the bleeding was due to menstruation or due to an abortion, and the woman was separated from her activities. “Today we have the knowledge, but social pressure can lead a marriage to continue the tradition,” he says. “We have to face reality to educate children correctly, we cannot continue educating with the prohibition; if you repress children, they will look for other solutions ”. Nodjita refers to formation not only in schools, but also in families and in the Church itself: “It is important that we as priests can explain these things in a realistic way.”
Grace Fonai panicked when her first period hit. She thought she would bleed to death because she didn’t know how much blood was going to come out, or how much was left in her body. Fonai is from Chad, but has lived in Spain for a year and a half. In her country she had discussed something about menstruation with her mother and an older cousin; in Spain, she talks about it with her schoolmates.
Mercedes Matons is a clinical psychologist, with 37 years of experience with adolescents, and is a collaborator of Psychologists Without Borders. For her it is essential that girls are informed before menarche to prevent them from believing that they are ill. “On a physical level they may think they are internally destroyed. At an intellectual level they think that they are impure as they are often told in their own environment ”. Matons emphasizes the importance that parents are also informed of how they should act in this situation and how the boys should know what the rule is and, apart from their own sexuality, how that of their companions develops. “Scientific thinking replaces magical thinking,” Matons clarifies. “We must place ourselves before femininity in another way, this occurs every month and it is not a bad thing or a disease. It tells us that we are fertile ”.
Matons recalls how in Spain it was common to hear girls say “I’m sick” associating femininity with being sick. The step to insult women in this way is very small, if you consider her a sick being, you come to say that she is inferior.
The psychologist sees the treatment that has historically been given to menstruation clearly linked to the inferior position of women compared to men. It can negatively affect a girl’s future. From the age of 11 or 12, feeling relegated, isolated, affects their studies, their salary demands, and even the position they deserve in a company. They can also lead to psychosomatic pathologies that produce menstrual pain, vaginismus, dyspareunias, and fertility problems, caused by anxiety.
“The best weapon to avoid these problems is information, to break the unconscious fantasies that many women have who see the period as internal destruction,” says the expert. Anxiety is placed in certain places in the body, Matons claims to know women who have had abdominal or uterine pain that, when they have the first child, disappear. “There is no adolescent who does not have problems, some fantasies, fears, when they have menarche and afterwards,” says Matons. “This comes to girls when their bodies begin to change, their hairs appear, their faces change, they look very strange. Their period comes and they feel terrible on the outside, because they see it, and on the inside because they are bleeding and they have the fantasy of being destroyed ”.
Against misinformation, Chadian Grace Horbira has designed the Girly mobile application, which will be available on the Google Play Store from February 2022 so that women can control menstrual cycles. It has a part where it explains what the rule is. “The application helps girls between 12 and 25 to better live this period of transition from girl to woman,” he notes. The idea is not only that many use their tool, but also contribute to normalize menstruation among their compatriots and provide them with all the necessary information on the subject.
For Horbira, carrying out his project has been a long and expensive process. “In Chad there are few computer scientists and having one is very expensive.” While working on the digital side, he designed a printed version, a book that has been promoted by schools. For her part, Dr. De Mingo will return to Chad in 2022 with more menstrual cups. The covid-19 pandemic and the assassination of the country’s president, Idriss Déby, have prevented it so far. The gynecologist wants to know first-hand the experiences of the girls to whom she distributed the menstrual cup; at the moment he only knows that one of them found it “very useful.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.