I became familiar with WaterAid during my second visit to Glastonbury music festival. Not only does this charity work hard all year every year to provide safe, clean water in less privileged countries, but they also provide clean safe toilets at this music festival. These volunteers spent a portion of their time on the world’s happiest farm cleaning up and freshening the lavs – all with a smile on their face and a flourish of Fabreeze. They got major kudos from me.
When I started running I knew I wanted to run for them one day, but supporting Macmillan Cancer Support was a more immediate and stronger pull for me at the time. During some recent research into charity work for my job, WaterAid was one of my first online stops. I quickly became familiar with their current campaign ‘To Be A Girl’. Whilst reading their site I was reminded of the fact that I have it so lucky, as a woman in a wealthy, established country.
I think we’ve all felt lazy and decided not to go out, felt chilly in our living rooms and moaned that the heating isn’t high enough, felt annoyed that our period has fallen on the weekend we wanted to go swimming. It’s nothing compared with what girls, and I do mean girls not women, have to contend with daily around the world – and they do contend with it, and often with a smile.
In Madagascar girls as young as 13 years old travel daily to collect water and carry more than their body weight just to provide for their families. In some cases they drop out of school because this job is so important. Imagine how much you lift at the gym, once or twice a week for ten minutes. Now imagine lifting your body weight, carrying this on your back, walking up long steep hills with this load and then going back for more?
In India, girls entering adolescence are forced to go to the toilet in the open, and in front of men because there’s nowhere else safe to go. Open drains and prying eyes force some of the girls to use nearby fields to escape the humiliation. They choose fields where the crop is high so that no one knows they’re there.
But the case that hit me the hardest was that of Radha in Nepal. I’ve been to Glastonbury three times now and on one occasion I was on my period. With no proper showers back then and only long drop toilets it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. I managed to stay clean and hygienic and luckily was able to carry on as normal, more or less. But in some areas of Nepal a tradition called Chhaupadi is still observed. This tradition, linked to Hinduism, teaches that menstruating women are impure.
For the seven days of her period Radha is ‘chau’ or ‘an untouchable menstruating woman’ and considered lower than dogs. Because of this she is sent out to a hut, known as a ‘goth’ and isn’t able to interact with anyone else during this time. Each of these huts will house up to three or four women but have no warmth but also no ventilation so lighting a fire is impossible without risk of suffocation from the smoke. The huts are so open to the elements that animals can get in and bite or attack the girls, and it’s not only animals that can get in. Despite these women being seen as unclean and impure, men can still get inside and rape them. The true extent of these attacks is not known since very few are officially reported.
Radha isn’t allowed into her temple as it could anger her Gods, she can only eat boiled rice and isn’t allowed to touch other women for fear of her ‘polluting’ them. Her sister will throw her food to behind the toilet area where she waits. In villages like Radha’s it’s even believed that during menstruation girls are possessed by evil spirits, and that if they touch a man or boy, he will start shivering and get sick.
Despite women disliking Chhaupadi it is continued and perpetuated by women and men so it’s very hard to break the tradition. In 2005 the Supreme Court of Nepal stated Chhaupadi was a violation of human rights. yet it carries on in these more remote areas. Taboos surround menstruation. It’s not a subject anyone wants to talk about. A post I wrote mentioning periods a while back received my lowest response and for some reason I felt the need to write a disclaimer warning readers before they read anything unsavoury. But right now I say ‘pah’ to that.
Girls are experiencing this kind of treatment every day, right now. WaterAid is working hard to educate these people and so I want to educate you. Periods are a fact of life. They’re nasty, no one likes them, but they’re natural and if dealt with properly can be clean and painless and a total non subject.
WaterAid’s aims are to replace the silence and shame of menstruation with pride and confidence in these girls. They want to equip women and girls with the knowledge and means to manage their periods hygienically and with dignity. They want to provide the means for safe disposal of sanitary waste. And all of these initiatives to educate, need to raise awareness amongst girls AND boys. It’s so important.
The purpose of me writing this blog today isn’t to guilt my readers into donating money. I was so effected by what I read that day on their website, that I knew I needed to spread the word. I had no idea any of this was happening somewhere on our little planet. Yes there’s worse things going on, but this is such a basic subject with a simple fix – though it’s not going to be easy. And it does cost money – so if you feel you want to help the effort please feel free to go and donate. You can donate HERE if you’re in the UK and the government will match your donation if it’s made before September 9th (amazing!) or you can donate HERE in the US. There’s also loads more information about WaterAid and their To Be A Girl Campaign through those links.
If you can’t or don’t want to donate now, then don’t worry. There’s plenty of time in the future, and maybe you’ll sponsor me on my next charity run when I support WaterAid. I know that when I have a period, and start to feel sorry for myself, I’ll be thinking about those girls who don’t have clean water to wash, or the privacy to go to the loo and stay clean, or even the support of their family to comfort them when they’re feeling at their lowest and most vulnerable.
If you’ve had a reaction to this post or the information I’m pleased. It won’t be a good reaction I’m sure. If you’re revolted by the subject matter – good. You need educating too and I hope I’ve done a little bit to do this. If you’re feeling bad for these girls and want to let other’s know what’s happening, then share this post, or share the To Be A Girl website on social media. Go on, and spread the word. WaterAid ask what it means to you to be a girl – My answer to this question is ‘being brave and strong’. Part of taking ownership of my answer is writing this post, and hopefully enabling those who aren’t, to get braver and stronger with the help of support and education.
What does it mean to you to be a girl?
Photo Credit WaterAid/Poulomi Basu