An almost eight hours long, bumpy car ride northeast from the capital Phnom Penh is Ratanak Kiri province, bordering to Vietnam. This is one of the least developed regions in Cambodia and educational levels are low. In this region, the child rights organisation Plan International has, with support from H&M Foundation, targeted ten primary schools to be part of their work with menstrual hygiene and to break taboos around menstruation.
Girls often miss school during their periods due to lack of handwashing stations, girl friendly latrine facilities or necessary sanitary products, and they suffer from attitudes that stigmatise girls and young women having their period. Missing school for several days each month means girls have a hard time keeping up with the educational level of their male peers, often resulting in girls quitting school several years earlier than boys.
“This project is about so much more than access to clean water and pads. It has radically improved the possibilities for girls to stay in school, significantly impacting their future chances to get employed or secure an income.”Mariann Eriksson, National Director of Plan International Sweden
The aim with Plan Internationals program is to ensure that girls can continue going to school during their periods, and that they have access to information, adequate facilities and menstrual hygiene materials. To achieve this, the ten targeted schools have been equipped with so called period labs containing educational materials, sanitary pads, dolls to demonstrate pad use, soap, posters and booklets about menstruation. The aim with the lab is to both teach boys and girls about menstruation and transform it from something shameful into a matter of pride.
One of the teachers, 25-year old Pon Samnang, has become a focal person for the work with menstrual hygiene at her school after receiving training organised by Plan International. She has a significant role in applying her knowledge and skills in order to better develop good habits and examples for the students.
“Most importantly, the girls are not absent from school because of having periods anymore.”Pon Samnang
“Before the promotion activities, the girl students did not understand that it was important to maintain their hygiene during their period”, Pon Samnang says. “They were absent from school or came to school late. After they were taught about menstrual hygiene management, they understood a lot more. They also help raise awareness about menstrual hygiene management among their family and friends. Most importantly, they are not absent from school because of having periods anymore.”
“Our partnership with H&M Foundation has improved the lives of thousands of Cambodian girls”, says Mariann Eriksson, National Director of Plan International Sweden. This project is about so much more than access to clean water and pads. It has radically improved the possibilities for girls to stay in school, significantly impacting their future chances to get employed or secure an income. With the support from this project, the girls can create a strong foundation for themselves as well as for future generations.”
Two years of working with menstruation in the region has had significant results. Menstruation is no longer a taboo topic for the ethnic minority communities in the north eastern region of Cambodia. “Is menstruation a secret?” Pon Samnang asks the twenty primary school students in the classroom. Both girls and boys answer the question confidently, “No, it is not! It is not a problem. It is a natural thing for girls.”