Connecting Health and Education: Esperance's Story
Esperance, 13, arrived at school one day to find that her friend, Gloria, was missing class for the third day in a row. The absence was out of character for Gloria, and Esperance worried something was wrong. After school, she rushed over to her friend’s home to check on her. When she arrived, she was relieved to find Gloria was safe. But her friend looked panicked. When she asked her what was wrong, Gloria whispered, “I’m bleeding and it won’t stop. I don’t know what to do.”
Esperance asked Gloria a few questions, then breathed a sigh of relief and calmly explained that she was menstruating. Esperance had attended a three-day training session organized by Right To Play called “My Life, My Plan” a few weeks before that covered topics like menstrual cycles and period management. Esperance shared some of what she'd learned with Gloria, who looked relieved. She asked Esperance if she could join her at their school’s weekly leadership club, where Right To Play-trained teachers connect with girls through activities and discussions.
"I had so many questions about what it is, how can I handle it, how long the period takes, or if it’s possible to attend class during this time.” – Esperance, 13
Creating safe spaces for inquiring minds
Esperance is committed to her studies. She also regularly helps children in her neighbourhood with their homework. And she dreams of being a doctor one day. But information about sexual and reproductive health is hard to come by in her community.
Prior to the session, Esperance hadn't known what to expect about the changes that would take place in her body as she entered puberty. Like many girls her age living in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, she had received no formal education on the subject, and strong cultural taboos kept her parents from discussing periods or menstrual hygiene management with their daughters.
“I had heard some people talk about ‘that time’ for girls, but I didn’t know what it meant. I had so many questions about what it is, how can I handle it, how long the period takes, or if it’s possible to attend class during this time. I didn’t know if it happened every month, or if I needed to attend a treatment clinic,” she says.
In the session, facilitators used games to create a safe, interactive environment where female students could connect with their teachers and ask questions to better understand what was happening with their changing bodies. The girls also received guidance on how to offer support to their friends and peers.
Empowering girls with knowledge
Esperance’s childhood has been marred by the trauma of violence and displacement. Her family has been on the move since before she was born, fleeing waves of violence in their home country of Burundi. When Esperance’s mother was pregnant with her, Esperance’s father was targeted by the authorities and forced to flee the continent. She spent her early childhood in Burundi, until the unstable political situation in 2015 caused the family to cross the border to Tanzania and settle in Nyarugusu refugee camp.
In the camp, Esperance and other girls face many barriers that keep them out of school. Lack of sexual and reproductive health knowledge is a significant one. In some households, parents hesitate to speak to their daughters about menstrual management because they’re afraid that more knowledge about periods would encourage them to engage in premature sexual activity. In others, patriarchal traditions dictate the way girls are allowed to behave, and what they know. Some girls are forbidden from preparing food for the family and from using the family’s bathing facilities, or expected to sleep separately from the rest of the family when they’re on their periods. Conversations about puberty, sexual health, and periods are not encouraged, which leads to shame and embarrassment.
“We have been empowered to speak and address our concerns with our teachers confidently and with the knowledge we need to manage our menstruation period.” – Esperance, 13
The school leadership club is a safe space where Esperance and other girls can learn about sexual health, safety and rights, and talk openly about what’s happening with their bodies. The girls also participate in playful activities that help them break down social barriers, build life skills, and learn how to be role models.
“Through these activities, we are able to meet with teachers and club members from other schools and share ideas. We have been empowered to speak and address our concerns with our teachers confidently and with the knowledge we need to manage our menstruation period.”
Increasing access to period products
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and UNHCR distribute reusable sanitary pads to girls and women aged 16-49 years old who live in the camp, providing important access to hygiene products to thousands of women. But girls who get their periods before 16 are left out, and that lack of access can significantly hinder girls’ ability to attend and participate in school. It's estimated that girls who don’t have access to pads miss an average of 30-40 school days per year because of their period.
This year, Right To Play is working with NRC to distribute over 9,000 reusable sanitary pads to girls under the age of 16, and to teach girls how to make their own reusable pads from locally available materials. As access to sanitary products increase, school attendance rates will also rise, giving more girls a chance at education. This opens a world of possibilities for Esperance and girls like her.
These activities are all part of My Education, My Future, a program that aims to improve access to and the quality of education for primary school-aged children, especially girls, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis. The program has been active in Tanzania and Burundi since 2020, and is made possible with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.