Empowering adolescent girls through Girls’ Rooms
UNICEF promotes menstrual health in rural Mongolia
Otgonchimeg is a outspoken 17 years old girl with dark brown eyes and a contagious smile. She was not even 15 when she had to leave home and move to Bayan-Tsagaan soum of Bayankhongor province to pursue her secondary education. Although she knew that like many other rural children living in small soum centres, at some point she would have had to move to a larger soum to complete her studies, it felt uneasy when she had to leave home for an unknown place and meet her new classmates.
Otgonchimeg shared a dormitory room with three other girls of her age. “It felt pretty awkward when I first met my new roommates,” she recalls, “we sat quietly on the corners of our beds, too shy to talk, trying not to meet each others’ eyes. It took us a few days to get acquainted and gradually became friends.” Khongorzul, an older girl, who already lived in the dormitory, approached Otgonchimeg herself and befriended her, reminding her of her own two elder sisters. Khongorzul was almost 17 at the time and knew every single girly secret about growing up.
“The most embarrassing times at the dormitory was when we had our periods,” says Otgonchimeg. Luckily, Otgonchimeg had her menarche back home when her mom a small store owner, in Bayan-Undur soum, told her about monthly menstruation and always brought her sanitary pads. Once she moved to the dormitory, though, Otgonchimeg often asked her friend Khongorzul to buy her sanitary pads as she - like many other girls in the dormitory - was too embarrassed to go out to buy pads.
Breaking the taboo of menstruation
According to WASH Action Mongolia NGO, 80 percent of school aged girls reported to identify the sufficiency of sanitation pads as the main challenge. “Having our menstruation was always annoying: many girls would have leaks, not knowing how to predict their periods,” says Otgonchimeg. Moreover, according to her, if any of the boys would detect an embarrassing moment, they usually were merciless. “The boys laughed at us, intimidated us, and we hated having critical days,” recalls Otgonchimeg, sitting on a comfortable couch in the Girl’s Room supported by UNICEF in her dormitory – true salvation to all girly problems.
Before the development of the Girls’ Room, Otgonchimeg and all the other girls of her dormitory had no designated place to change and wash their clothes in: “We had no other choice but to wait until nighttime to secretly wash our underwear after making sure everyone else in the dormitory was asleep and then take all the washed stuff back to our rooms to dry overnight,” confessed Otgonchimeg.
The school’s doctor, Uranchimeg Bayanjargal, reveals that menstrual hygiene is not a topic to be discussed openly in rural Mongolia. “Hence, the girls didn’t have much knowledge about menstrual hygiene management. In addition, poor water and sanitation facilities in schools in general create many obstacles for girls in taking care of their menstrual hygiene,” explains the school doctor.
Dr. Uranchimeg and the school’s management were instrumental in focusing UNICEF’s attention on this issue in Bayan-Tsagaan soum by reaching out to the local Government and the UNICEF WASH local focal point, Ariuntsetseg Shiirev. The school was finally chosen as the UNICEF support recipient due to its remote location, large size and availability of sanitation infrastructure. “In 2015, the Joint Order issued by Mongolia’s Minister of Education and Science and the Minister of Health set forward secondary school dormitory standards that stipulate setting up Girls’ Rooms,” says Ariuntsetseg. “Hence two dormitories in far-away soums of Bayankhongor aimag were chosen to be supported by UNICEF.”
In 2021, with funding support of Maßvoll Stiftung under the aegis of Fondation de Luxembourg through UNICEF National Committee of Luxembourg, UNICEF Mongolia started a new project to set up “Dignity Room for Girls” otherwise known as Girl’s Room, in two school dormitories, one of which was set in Bayan-Tsagaan soum’s school dormitory.
A Safe Heaven
Otgonchimeg moved in the dormitory of Bayan-Tsagaan’s school after it underwent a government-funded capital renovation in the Fall of 2019: newly painted walls, comfortable shower and indoor toilets, new furniture - a place significantly different from the ran down facility with outdoor pit latrines. Two years later, the Girl’s Room was built up. With its advent, the girls acquired the possibility to learn about their bodies and now, equipped with knowledge and information, are no longer afraid of growing into puberty.
Otgonchimeg says that most girls didn’t know how to track their menstruation cycles. “Not keeping calendars used to catch the girls off guard and often cause menstruation leaks. Also, to prevent unpleasant accidents, we keep sanitary pads in the Girl’s Room, so the girls always feel taken care of, hence happy, relaxed and self-confident. I am very proud of our Girl’s Room – it aided in nurturing a loving and caring relationship between the girls,” says Odonchimeg with a beaming smile.
A total of 56 girls, aged 6 to 18, live in Bayan-Tsagaan soum’s school dormitory. They all love chilling in the spacious Girls’ Room, mingling, reading and - most importantly for teenagers- learning about their changing bodies, menstruation, how to track menstruation cycles and how to take care of themselves during those critical days. Teachers and girls conduct monthly training and peer-to-peer information sharing meetings. Odonchimeg is one of the mentors: before opening the Girls’ Room, she was already a counsellor for her younger friends. “Once, not long after I came to the dormitory, a younger girl did not show up in the canteen for the whole day. So I went to see her: she was lying down on her bed, all alone, crying and suffering from menstrual cramps, firmly believing that she was bleeding to death. Having gotten my periods already, I was the one to explain to her the way our bodies transform when puberty starts,” says Otgonchimeg.
The Girls’ Room is now more than an information exchange and menstrual hygiene management learning place, with a washing machine and a variety of conveniences. It’s a place where girls share their dreams, confess their deepest secrets, study, read, laugh, dance,and be proud and confident about being girls.
Even the boys in the dormitory stopped teasing the girls. But sometimes they’re a little jealous about the girls having such a lovely and smart room all for themselves. “The girls have a super nice room all to themselves, they also do training there. I don’t know what they talk about in there, but it looks like lots of fun,” says Baljinnyam, a 17-years-old boy who lives in the dormitory. “I wish we had a boys’ room all to ourselves where we could play sports because we do not have a sports hall in the dormitory, only in the school.”
There are 22 more school dormitories in Bayankhongor aimag that are not yet equipped with Girls’ Rooms. The Girls’ Room in Bayan-Tsagaan soum has become a leading example on how respecting girls’ rights, meeting their needs and creating a space for an open conversation can empower girls to be proud of being who they are.
UNICEF Mongolia has been mainstreaming MHM at both the national and sub-national levels by supporting qualitative research on menstrual and girls' specific sanitation needs and advocating for improved WASH for girls in schools. This resulted in piloting innovative solutions to implement gender-sensitive standards and develop practical MHM guidelines. UNICEF is to continue upstream technical support for menstrual health and strengthening regular monitoring and evaluation.