The girls sat crowded together on the well-worn school benches and looked at me with a mix of mistrust and curiosity. Joni Kabana, the photographer I was traveling with, asked a question that was translated for the girls: “Have any of you seen a camera before?”
Lowered eyes, subtle headshakes. “No,” the translator responded. “They’ve never seen a camera.”
I recently had the privilege of traveling with Dignity Period to the north and northeastern regions of Ethiopia. I went with Joni to meet and photograph students and hear what they have to say about Dignity Period’s impact.
The quality of the schools and the student’s access to services were tremendously varied. Schools that were urban tended to have water and girls’ rooms that are equipped with changes of clothing in case of accidents. Girls had some access to disposable pads, though many commented on how expensive they are. The students at these schools giggled with each other and shifted seamlessly between being outspoken and confident and being shy and awkward – exactly as I remember myself as a teen.
In many rural schools, on the other hand, access to water was limited, and prior to Dignity Period’s work, girls had to stay home from school on their periods or risk the shame and embarrassment of an accident. Sanitary products were not available at all, even for those who could afford them. The students, with notable exceptions, of course, were much more tentative and reserved.
This was especially true in the northeastern Afar region. While many people in Afar are settling in villages, the majority are still nomadic and follow the very limited rains to provide for their livestock. Many of the schools are extremely remote, hours off-road. After making that trip, I wasn’t surprised that girls in this school had never seen a camera before; I was surprised they’d seen a vehicle.
I asked one girl, Urgo, whose favorite subject was geography, where she most wanted to visit one day, and she responded “Abala.” Abala was the city we had come from that morning – about an hour away. She’d never been there.
When I asked girls in Afar what they use to manage their periods, most – if they were willing to engage with me at all – said they just stay home and wash with water. If they are on the move to get water or prepare meals, they use whatever cloth or rags are available since they don’t have pads.
We took note of the additional challenges that girls from Afar and the more rural parts of Tigray face in attending school; they are not limited to menstrual hygiene supplies and education. Early marriage and motherhood still occur, and daily work can be exhausting. Women do a lot to keep villages running, including getting water, preparing meals, tending livestock, and gathering firewood.
I remember thinking as we were driving away in our Landcruiser – carrying a camera they’d never seen and headed to a nearby city they’d never visited – is Dignity Period really able to make a difference for these girls?
The answer is yes. Periods provide a unique opportunity. Menstruation, for many girls, is the first time they deal with “women’s issues” like negotiating who and when they will marry, pregnancy, and giving birth. Periods can set the tone for a girl’s ability to manage what happens to her and her body in the future. If girls have the resources and knowledge to address the challenge of getting a period at school, and the know-how to navigate and address the cultural attitudes toward periods, they will be in a better position to address the increasingly complex challenges of womanhood.
Being in these regions of Ethiopia with Dignity Period was an incredible experience. The girls I met with are tough and, with the education and resources provided by Dignity Period, better equipped to handle the issues that will face them as they get older. I left Ethiopia eager to see what this generation of girls is going to accomplish.
Sara Veltkamp works with Minerva Strategies, an agency focused on social impact that supports Dignity Period’s communication activities. All photos by Joni Kabana.