Girls and Sex Education

As part of our annual Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fairs next week, we will be distributing Days for Girls washable feminine hygiene kits.  The kits will be given to girls ages 9 to 18 as part of a teaching charla (chat) about menstruation.

Earlier this month, as pastors and leaders gathered to plan for this year's fairs, we shared an animated and difficult conversation about sex education and the realities of life for many girls in El Salvador.  One pastor had experienced some negative aftermath following a Mission of Healing Family Wellness Fair in her community two years ago.  A nearby school had sent groups of students in 7th through 9th grade to the fair with their teachers.  The students participated in the sex education charla, and as part of the charla observed the proper technique for placing a condom over a rather large wooden penis.  (This is an education charla which is done by health promoters from the church, and has been done across the country with youth groups and in schools.)  Apparently when the young people told their parents, many had an extremely negative reaction against the Lutheran Church.

We discussed ways in which we have improved the structure of the Family Wellness Fairs to provide a safe space for young people to ask questions about their bodies, sex and reproduction.  We now have a circle of charlas in a segregated area that are just for girls and women:  Breast Health, Menstruation, Menopause, Pregnancy and New Baby, Safe Sex, Pap Smear information and support from local women's centers with charlas about women's rights and violence in the home.  For the first year we have created a circle for men:  Men's Health with a significan focus on prostate health and Safe Sex for men.  In addition, if men are interested in learning more about Menstruation, Breast Cancer and Menopause, our charla leaders are prepared to create a special men's charla outside of the women's circle.  Participants self-identify whether they wish to participate in Men's or Women's charlas.

Everyone in the planning circle agreed that education about sexual health is critical.  A pastor in the circle shared that in his community there is a 9-year-old who is a "head of household" (his words).  She is a child with a child.  Later in the week another pastor shared with me that in her community, there are 3 or 4 girls who are ages 9 and 10 who have had babies.  The pastor who coordinates health ministries and sex education (including strong education about HIV and sexually transmitted diseases) shared that the number of positive HIV test results in El Salvador is increasing, as is the number of sexually transmitted infections.  The pastor also shared that she regularly encounters girls who have received no education prior to reaching puberty, and when they start to bleed they are frightened and humiliated.  Religious beliefs (including those of conservative Protestant groups) and a culture of male dominance contribute to the suppression of education efforts.

In the upcoming Family Wellness Fairs, we estimate that we will provide holistic education to about 1200 Salvadorans who live in impoverished communities north of San Salvador.  We will be distributing more than 300 Days for Girls kits to pre-teen and teen girls, and they will learn about their bodies, the changes that come with adolescence, and the best ways in which they can control their own reproductive lives and keep themselves healthy.

Side by side with the distribution of the Days for Girls kits, we continue our work with an emerging Days for Girls Enterprise.  The Enterprise is making Days for Girls kits which will be sold locally.  The kits are made by women who live in a rural area and do not have access to employment.  As we were doing research this week to create an advertising campaign for the Enterprise, I interviewed several women who live in a small community to find out how they manage their periods.  The conversation I had with a young woman (who now works in healthcare) is typical:

What do the girls normally use and how much does it cost?
The cheapest kotex (the word Salvadorans use for any disposable sanitary pad) cost $1 for a package of 10.  But they are thin.  For girls who have normal periods in three days they can use 2 packages.

But girls usually have their periods for 5 or 6 days, isn't that a problem?
Yes a big problem.  They have to buy a third package.  For women who have a stronger flow for three days they have to use the package of pads that cost $3.  Yes, it's really true that the majority of women have periods that last 5 days and most women have some heavy flow.  Many women visit the clinic because they have long periods with lots of blood and they have no way to take care of it.  (It's important to know that for most households in the rural area, we are told a typical income for a day is $3 -- if someone is working.)

I have heard that many girls wear one pad the whole day.  I imagine that is true.  What do you know about that?
The adolescent girls wear one pad the whole day and it gets super full.  This is because the fathers don't like to give them money for this [sanitary products].  And the girls have many infections which get worse with chamomile.  (I wondered about this point, so I Google-searched the use of chamomile tea for vaginal infections.  There are many web sites that talk about the use of this tea to help with yeast and bacterial infections, but the medical community does not seem so sure of it's effectiveness.  My guess is that women may use the tea thinking they will get better and if a small infection gets worse, they put off going to seek medical attention.)

There was a pause in the conversation, then the young woman added:
Did you know that my mom never bought kotex for me?  She always said there was no money for this.  So I went next door and my friend Roxanne gave me some of hers, every time.  And normally young women have strong periods, like I did.  It was horrible for me.  It was really horrible for me.

I have observed that in the rural areas, many girls do not have good information.  Is that true?
This is a theme that is very good to talk about out in the countryside because there are very timid girls in the cantones who prefer to remain silent and suffer rather than say anything.  Yes, it's the ones in the countryside who need it the most.

To learn more about Days for Girls:  Check out the links to previous blog stories about our specific experience.  If you or your group is involved in a Days for Girls movement in El Salvador, please be sure to follow the protocols set up by Days for Girls International.  This helps protect the new Enterprises which are being developed in Central America and ensures that quality education is being provided with each kit that is given by a donor group or sold by a local Enterprise. 
Women Working for God
Days for Girls in El Salvador
Kits for Girls
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