In Kyrgyzstan, girls lift shroud of shame on menstruation

Girls educate girls in peer-to-peer training on menstrual hygiene management (MHM)

By Sven G. Simonsen
Aigerim (far left) and other girls from the Vasilevka village menstrual hygiene training team.
UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2016/Kato
26 May 2017

The 28th of May is World Menstrual Hygiene Day, a day to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene and the challenges women and girls face because of menstruation. One important tool to promote menstrual hygiene and eliminate harmful misconceptions is menstruation education. Read on to learn how it’s working in Kyrgyzstan.

VASILEVKA, Kyrgyzstan, 26 May 2017 – Menstruation is a taboo subject in Kyrgyzstan. Girls enter puberty without understanding what is happening to their bodies, and suffer in shame and despair as a result. Many do not attend school during their periods, affecting their educational performance.

Aigerim, a resourceful 17-year-old girl, is determined to ease the burden on her peers. Together with four other girls from her village of Vasilevka in Kyrgyzstan’s northern Chui province, Aigerim attended classes on how to conduct peer-to-peer training on menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

“When we returned to our village to give the training, it became clear to us that in most families, the mothers never talk with their daughters about menstruation. As a consequence, many problems appear,” she says.

Their observation is confirmed by research, commissioned by UNICEF, which was conducted in 2015 at six schools in two provinces. It revealed that girls are very often on their own when dealing with menstruation. Parents and teachers shy away from the topic, hoping that someone else will give the girls the knowledge they need.

UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2016/Kato

Aigerim (center) focuses intently during one of the classes at the training of MHM trainers. The training programme will help raise awareness and break taboos surrounding menstruation by empowering girls to teach their peers about the subject.

Making schools girl-friendly

Building on the research findings, UNICEF and Save the Children developed a package of communication materials to teach girls about menstruation. The materials include a puberty book in two parts (one for girls aged 10-13 and another for girls aged 14-18), teachers’ guidelines on puberty and MHM, and guidelines for parents of adolescents.

The materials explain puberty, menstruation, MHM and the menstruation cycle in age-appropriate language. The guidelines help teachers and caregivers advise girls on hygiene practices before, during and after menstruation. The guidelines were used during trainings to build teachers’ confidence and improve their understanding of menstruation and puberty.

Altogether 100 teachers from 100 schools participated. Each of them was trained to further disseminate the knowledge to their colleagues and to the girls they teach.

This research, advocacy and training are all components of the Wins4Girls project, funded by the Government of Canada. The ‘W’ is short for WASH – water, sanitation, and health – and WinS is short for WASH in Schools. Kyrgyzstan is one of 14 countries worldwide that are part of the Wins4Girls project.

UNICEF Kyrgyzstan/2016/Kato

Back in her village, Aigerim is teaches local girls about menstrual hygiene. “What we learned about women’s health will be useful for me, the girls in my village, and even all girls in Kyrgyzstan, for our entire lives," she says.

Girls educate girls

What got Aigerim and other girls involved was an idea conceived by UNICEF WASH Officer Esen Turusbekov: “When our Wins4Girls training for teachers was completed, I thought, why not to involve youth centres, too?”

To do this, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the NGO Our Voice connected with municipality-run youth centres. Five teams of five girls were recruited from different centres in the north of the country. They were all brought to Bishkek, where they familiarized themselves with the puberty books and learned the essentials of menstrual hygiene management.

Shortly afterwards, the teams returned home to conduct their own peer-to-peer trainings. In all, 403 girls were trained in MHM by the five teams.

UNICEF peacebuilding officer Mariko Kato observed Aigerim and her teammates when they spoke with girls in their home village of Vasilevka.

“I thought we might not have many girls attend in this particular village, which is quite conservative, with modest living conditions. But there were more than 30 participants, and I saw Aigerim doing a really good job,” Kato says.

Aigerim and her team were committed. Collectively, they visited every family in the village, talked to the parents and convinced them to send their daughters to the training.

“I was very happy to participate in the training,” Aigerim says. “What we learned about women’s health will be useful for me, the girls in my village, and even all girls in Kyrgyzstan, for our entire lives.”

The training also changed the way she thinks about menstruation.

“Girls have learned from childhood that talking about menstruation is inappropriate and shameful. But the training opened my eyes. I began to see that it is a natural biological process, and nothing to be ashamed of.”

From here onward, UNICEF aims to secure funding to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene across Kyrgyzstan – working both with teachers, care givers and peer trainers such as Aigerim, to make every school girl-friendly.