Friends in High School Places
While it’s normal to hear girls in American high schools complaining to each other about menstrual cramps or trying to sneak tampons into the bathroom without catching anyone’s eye, many of us can’t imagine the desperate challenges millions of women and girls around the world face every month. Two and a half years ago, during a Sidwell Friends School meeting on female empowerment, we heard a podcast about one girl’s monthly struggle — and we realized how privileged our 15-year-old perspective had been. The Nepalese girl was only 12 years old, living in poverty and struggling to take care of herself and her family. She wanted to continue her education, but her own body kept impeding her from attending school at least five days each month. Due to her lack of access to sanitary latrines, sufficient water, privacy, and supplies, she was unable to manage her menstruation during the school day. To make matters even worse, her community encouraged her to isolate herself in a menstrual shed during those days, so that her “impurity” would not bring bad luck to others. After hearing this story, we became more aware of how essential education is to lifting a girl out of poverty — that a girl’s future may depend on something as simple as access to basic menstrual health resources and education. Without them, her own body’s natural function stands in the way of her dignity, health, and opportunity. We started looking for ways to get involved, and we found out about the Days for Girls movement through our research. Inspired by its mission, we reached out to the organization and created the DfG Club at Sidwell Friends School (DfG SFS) — the first Days for Girls Club in Washington D.C. Days for Girls International connected us with Naalya Secondary School in Kampala, Uganda, a region where the female attendance rate drops from 97% in primary school to only 26% in secondary school, coinciding with the time girls begin to menstruate.
In March 2017, we launched DfG SFS with a presentation to our high school student body of 500 — including over 250 teenage boys! — during a school assembly. We decided to begin by not talking about menstruation at all. Instead, we began by asking the audience, “If you could do anything, what would do with five extra days each month?” Their responses — sleeping, traveling, watching Netflix — juxtaposed the aspirations of many girls in low-income countries, who simply wanted the chance to attend every school day. By focusing our presentation on education first, our peers were able to empathize more easily, and we recruited dozens of enthusiastic volunteers. Our club has two goals: 1. Produce DfG Kits for girls in low-income communities around the world. 2. Host discussions with local high schoolers to break the stigma surrounding menstruation. Currently, the Days for Girls Sidwell Friends School Club (DfG SFS) is student-run and meets four or five times a week to sew the shields that are included in some DfG Kits for Naalya Secondary School girls. Within our first few months, we had raised $800 for our sewing machines and materials. We have also developed our club in LearnServe International’s social entrepreneurship programs, contacted various companies for partnerships, and pitched our venture to local enterprise leaders.
This spring, we are spreading our campaign to other schools in the Washington, D.C. area to encourage the creation of more clubs. We are also working on partnerships with local Days for Girls church chapters, a fun-run donation event, and nominations for future club leadership to ensure our club will expand and thrive after we graduate this June. Every step aligns with our club’s vision: "DfG SFS envisions a world in which every girl overcomes the limits of biology to pursue her education and reach her maximum potential. Not only is she confident, dignified, and has equal opportunity to pursue her passions, but she also promotes menstruation and a natural and empowering process for generations to come."
We hope that through partnerships or sponsorships — bakeries, fabric stores, sewing machine companies, etc — we can be one step closer to advancing the Days for Girls vision of dignity, health, and opportunity for “Every Girl. Everywhere. Period.”
The DfG Club at Sidwell Friends School. Elen Stepanyan is on the bottom row, third from the left.
For more information about starting a Days for Girls Club at your school, please visit our website.