In El Salvador, girls find it difficult to talk about their periods

On the last day of high school at the foot of the Chalatenango mountains in El Salvador, one of 17-year-old Xochitl’s male classmates asked him to reach for something from his backpack.

While he was going through his school bag, he noticed that there was a sanitary pad inside.

“Why are you carrying a pad?” she asked him. Menstruation was traditionally a taboo subject in this rural area, and if brought up by any boy in his school it would often be in the context of ridicule or bullying. “In case there’s an accident or someone needs it,” he replied. He was surprised.

She had decided to carry pads after she joined the Power of the Red Butterflies, a training program run by her friend. Plan International This allows girls – and boys – to learn about the menstrual process and the issues around it, including sexual health and consent. Xochitl could now see that the program was making an impact, even with his male classmates. “I was so happy,” she says.

After graduating from the program, Xochitl became a Red Butterfly – someone who is knowledgeable about menstrual health and is empowered to share her knowledge with others in her family and community. “[Menstruation] Something women, men, boys, girls should know. The more information we are given, the more we can help each other to avoid being bullied and have too many problems,” says Xochitl.

Xochitl, 17, outside his home in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña)

Xochitl, 17, outside his home in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña)

According to Yamila Ábrego, national health adviser for Plan International, the aim of the project is to help girls and young people experience menstruation and puberty as something positive, healthy, without bullying or violence. “They’re confident,” she says.

Despite a massive security campaign launched by the government last year, El Salvador is notorious for its belligerent gangs, violence, and macho culture that often sees women as only childbearers and mothers.

Menstruation has traditionally been seen as a disease that only concerns women, dirty and even girls and women have to hide. Myths and taboos make it difficult for girls to talk about their periods at home or at school. Some misconceptions include the need to restrict eating and stop all activities for a period of time. The practice that Ábrego most complains about is “not going to school because of the simple fact of having a period”.

The program aims to dispel these myths in an environment where boys and girls are encouraged to be open about their fears and feelings. “We learned to take care of ourselves and show more brotherhood among ourselves., because we learned that if someone has a problem, if a woman has a period problem, we have to be there,” says Xochitl.

Twenty-year-old Damaris also went through the program. He says not talking about the subject hurts him and his friends. “We’ve spent a lot of time in a culture where it’s forbidden to talk about all these themes.” There were unwritten rules and customs that the girls adopted without question. “My grandmother once told me not to go to church when I got my period because that would be a sin. He actually told me that,” says Xochitl.

Girls participate in The Power of Red Butterflies Project, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Girls participate in The Power of Red Butterflies Project, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Since the program was established in 2019, 325 adolescents and 75 families from 17 different communities around El Salvador have completed the three-month Red Butterflies course. (The word butterfly was chosen as a symbol of power and freedom, and the word red as a symbol of the menstrual cycle).

At a public health center on the main road connecting El Salvador to Honduras, 11 girls aged 17 to 20 find space to talk about their needs and doubts.

“Let’s start sharing something we brought to this session,” says Yamila Ábrego on a warm Monday morning. “It can be a song, a poem, something to share.”

Dora, Esmeralda, Rosemarie, Malanie, Neisily, Heydi, Haizel, Verónica, Damaris, Karla and Xochitl attend the three-hour workshop just before the school holidays. “I bring happiness,” one of the girls says. Another says, “I bring positivity to you all.”

Many have known each other since adolescence and have appeared in other Plan International programmes. “I’ve known them for years, four or five years – each workshop helps us more,” says Xochitl.

Girls learn that every time they get their period, they don’t need to hide or be ashamed. “I spent a year hiding this,” Neisily admits during the session. When she got her first period, she was afraid to talk to her family about it. Other girls had the same experience. “My sister cried when she had it for the first time,” says Xochitl. She tried to ignore it, which added to her anxiety. The workshops allow girls to talk about menstrual health as well as pads, tampons, menstrual cups and, more importantly, sexual and reproductive rights.

For many, for the first time they have had the chance to learn and talk about their bodies and how to respect them. “Not knowing ourselves doesn’t give us any power – it keeps us in the dark,” says Damaris. “Allowing us to get to know us gives us a chance to make decisions for ourselves.”

Knowing that Damaris now has the information she needs, her mother, Rosa, listens to her daughter with pride. “What they learn makes them feel complete. They know how to handle situations and share this information with other girls,” explains Rosa.

Yamila Ábrego of Plan International (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Yamila Ábrego of Plan International (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Beyond explaining how the menstrual cycle works, Ábrego says the program can help girls “build their lives.” “If they are informed at the right time and they have this information, they can tell when or if they want to have children.” Xochitl agrees: “We didn’t realize that we have sexual and reproductive rights, that we don’t have to be mothers or fathers by force or carelessness.”

The Red Butterflies project also includes boys and young men to unravel the mystery of menstruation and educate them on reproductive rights and sexual consent.

Between 2015 and 2020, there were 105,930 cases of child and teen pregnancies in El Salvador. United Nations Population Fund. Of that total, 5,104 occurred among girls aged 10 to 14. Under Salvadoran law, any pregnancy under the age of 15 means that it was due to rape.

For Ábrego, therefore, such a program is so important “not to naturalize pregnancies in girls and teens”, but to call it sexual violence, to reinforce this message. This is a cultural shift in a country where the justice system often fails to punish perpetrators of violence against girls and women due to fear of reporting such crimes, lack of knowledge of how to act, or being given low priority by prosecutors.

According to Xochitl, the program enables them to be assertive. “If we say no, it means no. We can make decisions for ourselves, our bodies, or our own emotional or psychological state.” Girls: “No, stop!” They understand that they have a right to say. says.

“I feel happy because I know from these workshops that we can change the way we think and change the way we see the future,” he adds.

Dora and Esmeralda want to be psychologists. Others like Haizel, Melanie, and Damaris hope to become doctors. Neisily and Xochitl want to start technical careers, Karla wants to be a math teacher, Rosemarie wants to be a criminologist and Heydi wants to be a forensic scientist.

“This girl group gives me confidence,” says Damaris. He is confident that the decision makers of the future are among this group.” It may sound like a theme that won’t have much impact, but that’s where we see knowledge is power,” adds Damaris, whose sole purpose is to become a neurosurgeon.

Damaris, 20, takes a selfie with other girls at the Red Butterflies event in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Damaris, 20, takes a selfie with other girls at the Red Butterflies event in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Chaletenango, like all of El Salvador, is still stunned. Tropical Storm Julia swept through Central America in October. Power of Red Butterflies it also includes an element of resilience that prepares young people to deal with emergencies where access to privacy and sanitation facilities may be limited.

“In El Salvador, many girls (on their period) stop going to school due to lack of supplies, poor hygiene facilities, as well as myths and prejudices. It only increases in emergencies,” says Carlos Tejada, a national coordinator. flood proofing project. “That’s why we launched this initiative to help manage menstrual hygiene. The program helped distribute 3,045 hygiene kits including sanitary pads, menstrual calendar, hot compress, hand sanitizer, flashlight and underwear during the Covid pandemic, and 144 kits after Storm Julia.

Xochitl helps his family with chickens (Victor Peña/ Evening Standard)

Xochitl helps his family with chickens (Victor Peña/ Evening Standard)

Red Butterflies training for Xochitl gave him not only practical knowledge but also new aspirations for his future.

His biggest passion is to be an electrician and although this job is seen as a job that only men can do, he plans to start his education this year with the support of his mother. “She supports me and says it’s okay to push my limits,” she says. While waiting for his technical school course to begin, Xochit helps them out on his family’s small chicken farm.

Her mother, Eloísa, says the Red Butterflies project gave Xochitl the confidence she needed to pursue a male-dominated career. “It [The Power of Red Butterflies] “It has helped him become more sure of what he wants to do with his life.”

Xochitl riding his bike (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Xochitl riding his bike (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

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