Why I volunteer for SUM1

Guest post from Laurie R.

Jodi asked me why I started to volunteer for SUM1 and +1ndia. The surface answer is because I would do nearly anything for Jodi…she’s an amazing person with tremendous vision and she knows how to get things done. But that’s the surface answer. The real reason is more emotional for me.

When Jodi first started talking about going to India and the importance of educating villages about good hygiene I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here we are in the 21st century and people over there are doing what their ancestors were doing several hundred years ago because they don’t have the knowledge or access to tools to do things in a different, healthier way. But what really got to me was her description of what women do during their menstruation cycles. It brought back sad memories of me at 14. Those were memories I have done my best to forget.

When I was 14 my parents moved our family to another town about 40 minutes north of where we used to live. If that wasn’t bad enough, after a few months in our new home my mom was committed to the state mental hospital. As the oldest child I ended up being responsible for the housekeeping and taking care of my younger siblings. My alcoholic father came home at 5 and I was expected to have dinner on the table. I was given a little money to do the weekly grocery shopping and my father was fairly specific what I could buy: chicken, cereal, potatoes, milk, bread. It didn’t vary much from that. My father gave us lunch money each week.

I was able to deal with a lot of the adult roles that were put on me, but I lacked guidance for dealing with my menstrual cycle. It had been fairly regular for a couple years. Up to that point my mom made sure I had the necessary supplies each month and beyond that we never, ever talked about it.

When my mom was in the state hospital I was alone when it came to dealing with all the stuff going on with my body. Shame and shyness prevented me from discussing this with anyone. I was far too shy to speak with a teacher or school counselor at my new school. I wouldn’t even talk to my aunt who lived a short drive away (and I’m sure she would’ve bent over backwards to help me). I certainly wouldn’t talk to my father about such things—I was terrified he would beat me over something I couldn’t control.

The first time I ran out of feminine hygiene products I wadded up some toilet paper and used that. I skipped lunch for a couple days until I had saved enough money to buy the things I needed. It was uncomfortable. I was always worried I would bleed through my clothing and everyone would see the blood or my “solution” would slip out of my pants. Could they smell me even though I bathed every day? What little self-esteem I had drained away from me. I wanted to skip school every month. This was a cycle that repeated several times that year. I learned to skip lunch a few times a week just to make sure I had the extra cash for those times. But I was 14 and 14-year-olds aren’t known for their ability to consistently plan ahead.

When Jodi told me about the young girls and women who use corn husks, rags, and ash during their menstrual cycles I could relate to them on some level. I knew how uncomfortable it was to have inadequate hygiene supplies and how it really can destroy your self-esteem. I came really close to dropping out of school that year. I’m still not sure why I stayed in school and I completely understand why these girls would leave school rather than dealing with the stigma related to menstruation. I didn’t realize how the inadequate supplies can cause infections and possibly make these women infertile or kill them.

I know that what I went through is nothing compared to what all of those village girls and women in India experience on a monthly basis. It breaks my heart to think of those girls sitting in schools trying to learn and wondering if they are bleeding through their clothes or sequestering themselves and not learning at all because this process of becoming a woman can make you feel ashamed of your body. No girl should feel body shame. Every girl and woman deserves to feel empowered and happy to be in their bodies.

If the little time I volunteer makes a difference and helps a few girls feel better about themselves, if they are able to feel cleaner, more confident during their monthly cycles and can stay in school longer and become strong community leaders in their villages and teach other girls and women how to take care of themselves and be proud of who they are then maybe I can go back to my 14-year-old self and tell her that what she went through will help others in a worse situation…and then it will all be worth it.

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