I woke in the morning to find bloodstains on my sheets and clothes. Horrified and panicked, I searched my body and the body of my sister, who lay sleeping next to me. I was confused—there were no wounds to be found.
I leapt out of my bed and made my way to the bathroom outside. When the blood flow didn’t stop, I fled to the bush and sat there for hours. What had befallen me? I asked myself. Could it be that someone had placed a curse on me?
I was angry and frustrated. But more than that, I was terrified and ashamed. I was thirteen, and I had never heard about menstruation. My mother never talked about it. No one at primary school had mentioned it. In Cameroon, the topic of menses is taboo.
When I finally left my hiding place in the bush, I snuck back into my bedroom through the back door. My whole family had been searching for me. Still, I didn’t tell them the reason I had fled. Instead, desperate to stop the bleeding, I cut a chunk of foam from our mattress to catch the blood. When it only held for a short time, I experimented with cloth. It worked better, but I only had an hour or two before it began to leak. I managed with foam and cut pieces of clothes for three days. Then, I realized the blood flow had stopped.
This went on for a few days each month. But then, a few months later, my menses stopped completely. I was so happy! I didn’t know that the bleeding stopped because I had become pregnant. I knew nothing about reproductive health and the process of pregnancy was a complete mystery.
When I gave birth to my son at home, my mother gave me a piece of cloth to use for the resulting blood flow. But when we got to the hospital, the midwives asked, “Madam, where is your pad?” Of course I didn’t know what a pad was; I had never seen one before.
My mother handed the midwives the rags she had in her bag, but they insisted that we must buy expensive sanitary pads. My parents had no choice but to spend money we did not have on pads for me to help with postpartum bleeding.
When I started secondary school a year later, I had no access to the sanitary pads I had used following the birth of my son. I continued to use cut pieces of cloth.
I was surprised to learn that even in secondary school, there was no discussion of menstrual hygiene management. It was common to see menstruating girls tie black sweaters around their waists to hide stained uniforms. The boys, and even some girls who had not yet started their periods or those from rich homes who could afford pads, laughed and mocked us.
In many parts of the world, menstruation means more than pads, tampons, and cramps. Menses means limited (or no access) to adequate sanitary supplies. It means makeshift toilets (or no toilets at all), and inadequate water facilities. It means shame, secrecy, and stigma.
All these factors combine to isolate girls and women and prevent them from going to school and work, thereby causing women and girls to lose an average of five days a month from school and work due to menstruation.
In some cultures, menstruating women are not allowed to cook or sleep in the same bed as their husbands. Sometimes, women are downgraded to an outhouse for the duration of their cycle.
Unfortunately, this refusal to discuss menstruation poses serious setbacks to girls’ education. But this isn’t an issue that just affects adolescent girls. Later in life, women in all sectors—from business to farming—find themselves unable to work due to poor access to sanitary products.
It wasn’t until I made my way to the US that I learned that menstruation does not have to be taboo and stigmatized. I marveled at the types of sanitary products available to women in the developed world. I learned so much about my body simply because I could talk to other women about things I could never utter in Cameroon.
On a return trip to Cameroon in 2014, I decided to take the knowledge I had gained in my time abroad and help those in my homeland. My personal experience growing up without sanitary pads made me determined to come up with solutions.
In 2015, I founded the KujaPads initiative. We started out by donating sanitary products to girls and giving empowerment workshops on menstrual hygiene management to schools in rural Cameroon. Our curriculum helps young girls understand menstruation: why it happens, how they can manage it without missing school, and how to keep track of their cycles.
Our next step is implementing national policies to make sure that curriculum like this is available to all girls across Cameroon. It is important that we educate girls about menstruation so that they do not have to face their periods with fear.
Even as I helped girls learn about their bodies, there remained a burden on my heart. How could we provide enough sanitary pads to enough girls? What would happen after the ones we donated were gone? I wanted affordable, environmentally friendly and sustainable options for my community.
After a few months of research and networking in the US, a friend sent me a link that changed everything. In India, we found a newly invented machine to create pads using biodegradable cotton. Work is currently underway to start our first women-led enterprise in Cameroon where affordable, environmentally friendly sanitary pads will be manufactured locally. Pads will be accessible and sold at low-cost so that girls can easily get them.
I have also launched a project called One Million Pads for Progress, a pad drive campaign that hopes to amass 1 million pads to distribute to poor school girls in Cameroon.
I know that through these initiatives, school absenteeism will greatly drop. Self-esteem and confidence will be boosted. Rural women will be equipped with the skills to produce hygienic and ecological pads on their own, which will be a source of income and economic empowerment.
I am determined to give women and girls back the five days each month they lose out due to menses, because all women deserve a shame-free relationship to their periods.
Marie-Claire Kuja is a contributor from Cameroon who lives in the United States. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.