Primary schools in this country’s capital city, as well as those located in the rural areas of Trinidad, are facing the challenge of menstruating girls flushing cloth into the toilet as a result of period poverty.
This was among the “shocking findings” that community liaison monitoring and evaluation officer at T&T Red Cross Society Alejandra Mendez said was made during focus groups with over 100 principals in the eight educational districts in T&T.
“In rural areas and also in Port-of-Spain schools are having challenges with their plumbing because girls are using cloth because they don’t have access to products and that clogs the system and they only understand this because they have to bring a plumber and the whole thing has to be opened. It is financially really expensive for the schools to go through this process,” Mendez said.
“But what is happening to girls in T&T is that they are using whatever cloth because they do not have access to products. It is happening in Port-of-Spain, it is happening in other districts like the South Eastern district, it is happening in the St Patrick district so this is something that should raise concerns,” she said.
Another thing that came from the study, Mendez said is that primary schools in Trinidad do not have a budget for menstrual health and hygiene.
“This means they do not have disposable bins available for girls,” Mendez said.
This she said is especially problematic as girls are starting to reach puberty around the age of 8, 9 and 10.
“They are still in primary school however primary schools don’t have a budget for that but because nobody is looking at it. It is something that they try to manage but sometimes the solution that they come up with are not best for the experience of girls,” she said.
In Tobago they already cater for menstrual health and hygiene in primary school, she said.
Mendez said these discoveries were made during discussions with the principals as part of the TTRCS’ Know Your Flow programme.
Mendez said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated period poverty in this country, affecting both nationals and migrants.
“So that is how ‘Know Your Flow’ was born which is our menstrual health and hygiene programme. That is how it started when we saw the need for access to menstrual material,” Mendez said.
“We started thinking about period poverty and then the question came about how sustainable is it for the Red Cross and for any other NGO because not only is Red Cross focused on that, there are many NGOs,” she said.
Mendez highlighted the work of the Helping Her Foundation, The Pineapple Foundation, and Feminitt who were all their part in addressing menstrual health.
In the quest to see how sustainable it was to address the issue, Mendez said the TTRCS started researching to see how it could launch an impactful intervention.
“And when we address poverty of any kind we have to look at education. You cannot really address poverty in any way if you don’t tackle knowledge and education. If you don’t you don’t develop people’s capacity and strengthen their capacity, you don’t create resilience,” she said.
Period poverty is one of the pillars of the Know Your Flow programme which seeks to address access to materials for women and girls especially in vulnerable communities.
“We also target the cultural and the societal norms around the subject of menstruation because believe it or not it is still taboo,” she said.
Mendez said what they are trying to achieve is a national baseline study, on menstrual health and hygiene.
“Our end goal is mainstream menstrual health and hygiene as a matter of gender equality and social inclusion because we cannot speak about women’s rights and gender equality when the biological needs of 50 per cent of the population are not met,” she said.
Mendez said one of the goals of the programme is to assist in getting a draft policy on menstrual health and hygiene which will address period poverty but as access to materials.
“So we are hoping that after the baseline study we can get together with other organisations, other NGOs and draft a national policy that we can present to the government to assist and tackle these issues,” she said.
“We also hope to develop a curriculum for girls and boys. And this is the other thing our problem does not only target women and girls but also boys and men because if 50 per cent of the population does not understand the needs of the other 50 per cent we have a problem,” Mendez said.
The programme is divided into three phases, boys and girls 17 and under, women 18-45 and women 45 and over.
“Now we are going to start in March to meet with girls and boys in the eight educational districts we are going to do more than 30-40 focus groups nationally, we are going to meet with girls in correctional facilities, we are going to meet with girls with disabilities, and with migrant girls as well,” Mendez said.
She said when they gather all of the data they will bring in an expert to analyse it and present the findings.
“And then based on those findings we are going to develop a curriculum to address the lack of knowledge,” she said.
Mendez said there is currently a competition for girls to draw a character that they feel represents their menstrual cycle.
They also have to write five questions that they have about menstruation.
“With these, we are trying to understand from another point of view, what we are doing is formative research so we are doing qualitative research, quantitative research but this is participatory research,” she said.
The boys are also being asked to write the five first words that come to mind when they think of menstruation and five things they would like to know about it.
“We are trying to give voice to everyone, after we have all that after we finish with menopausal women then we can have enough evidence to suggest or draft a menstrual health and hygiene policy that the government can benefit from and polish and bring experts too because they will have all the data and that is how red cross works,” Mendez said.
Mendez said she feels the study is important as the issue of menstrual health and hygiene was barely mentioned in the National Sexual and Reproductive Health policy that was published in 2020.
She said both the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Education have been supportive of the Know Your Flow campaign.
“We just go through the motions and we don’t educate ourselves and we have not been educated enough in the subject of menstruation and what is best, what are the products that are available in the market, which should be used,” Mendez said.
“We need to develop the capacity in the society to address menstrual health and hygiene and generate that positive outcome for future generations,” she said.