Dr (Mrs) Olufunmi Adegbile is the founder and team lead of Girls to Women with Ease Foundation. In this interview with Newspeakonline, Adegbile talks about why she set up the foundation and why she is so passionate about menstrual health among girls. Excerpts
I am Dr. Olufunmi Adegbile, the founder and the team lead of Girls to Women with Ease Foundation.
What does Girls to Women with Ease Foundation stands for?
Girls to Women with Ease Foundation is a Christian-based non-profit organisation with primary focus on creating awareness, mounting sensitisation campaigns on care, production, prevention of diseases associated with the female reproductive organs.
For about three decades, I have been in the position of counseling young couples in early marriage, mid-age and over time I discovered that a handful of these couples have infertility problems. After counseling and praying with them, I will refer them to medical practitioners and they will come back and say my wife has infections and majority of them will say I married my wife as a virgin and how did she get infected? The infection would have gained ground in her body that she could not be able to conceive which would lead to more medical work and we were able to nosedive this into poor menstrual hygiene when they were younger.
After a while, I started creating awareness for young girls in schools, people around me and I will help them; some of them will tell me that they could not afford sanitary pad and I will help with it.
What do you mean by menstrual health?
Menstrual health is the care of the vagina and the rest part of other female reproductive organs during menstruation and this is what we called menstrual hygiene. Having and maintaining good menstrual health. Majority of people don’t have it, even grown up women don’t have it in Nigeria.
What are the best practices standard and how do you know you are falling below standards?
After talking to some of these married ladies going through infertility problem and I discovered that majority of this women, like 85% are not using appropriate sanitary towels when they were young, some are not aware, some knew about it but they could not afford it. They were using rags, used cloths because that was what was handed to them by their parents, I decided to start with the awareness among young girls, adolescence. How to take care of themselves, what to do to take care of themselves and I have been buying sanitary towels for these ones.
I have been asking friends and family for help and they advised me that I can’t do this alone. That was what gave birth to this organization. So, when I was 60 years old, rather than have party, I used that to properly register this organisation.
How do we help these young girls ease into womanhood without stress? So, we go from one secondary school to another and we will do about two schools in a month, majorly public schools. Sometimes, we go to private schools to do the awareness but we work more in the public schools and it is not only in Oyo State, we have done some awareness in the North as well and that one is more horrible.
We discovered that in a big public school, we have about a thousand or two thousand students, both male and female, but we have 350 to 450 girls between the age range that are menstruating and those are our target. My passion is to stamp out the use of rags but we can’t just go to the school and ask them that how many of them are using rags, we thought that they would be ashamed. So, we go there with the mind of distributing pads among the girls and we also enlighten them on things to do to keep the vagina clean. They should wash the vagina without soap; by using ordinary water and sanitary towels and ours is a good sanitary towel that can last for six hours. World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended sanitary towel should not last for more than six hours.
You will find out that most women use sanitary towels that stays longer with them for more than six hours.
Yes, some women use it for more than six hours and you will find out that infection can take off from there because of the blood that get stuck through the body and that is the problem of some of these sanitary towels, rather than sinking inside the sanitary pad. Sanitary pad, according to WHO standard, should have iron strip which is supposed to energize, strengthen and eliminate infection. There are so many sanitary towels but there is just one sanitary towel that meet that standard in Nigeria as of today. That is why majority of women whenever they finished menstruation, they start itching and it is because those sanitary towels are badly produced. They will keep itching for days because the iron strip that is supposed to be there is not there which is a form of infection because you don’t itch your genital anyhow.
We try to let them know how to carry themselves and let them know that it is something they should be proud of, that they are menstruating and they should not be ashamed or lose their self esteem because most of these wrong things they used for sanitary towels, they will get wet, soaked, stained and they will be like this is a shameful thing, but we let them know that it is not a shameful thing and we let them know how to carry on after people have seen that blood because some ladies will not come to school for some days.
Besides that, nobody is talking about some of these girls missing school and I think the government need to look into this because I am passionate about it. These girls are in the same class with the boys and majority of these girls’ experience pain before and during menstruation, so they stay extra one week at home. For that one week, they can’t afford to be coming to school and that means every month, they lose one week. A normal month is four weeks and they lose a week in a month; you still expect these girls to sit for the same exam with the boys. One week every month is three weeks every three month in a calendar year and nobody is looking at that, but if government can order stakeholders to look at how to get good sanitary towels that have iron strip, that energize you and take away pain, it would be better.
My passion for this moment as we look at celebrating another international day of the girl child is eliminating use of rags for menstruation and when we go to these schools, some of them will say this is their first time of seeing sanitary towels. So, we open it and demonstrate how to use it, when and how to dispose it and how to clean up before using a fresh one and among 350 to 450 girls within the age range, you will still see about 64 that are still using rags.
What about other people that are still using other items?
Yes, some are still using tissue papers and we will put them together. Those that are using every other thing apart from sanitary towels is about half of the entire population. So, when we have about 450 girls, we have about 200 still not using sanitary towels in the West.
In the North, it is horrible because the last school we went to is Girls Secondary School, Tudun Wada I & II, Jos, Plateau State. Among these girls, there are those that are using rags, some are using newspapers and we asked them to demonstrate how they use it. They will wet it, squeeze it, fold it and insert it. Some still say they will use textbooks because over there government still gives out free textbooks to encourage them to come to school.
Don’t their mothers educate them?
No, for some people.
What is the percentage of people that are yet to embrace best practices in the North?
From the schools we went to, they were like 20% as against the 50% we have in the West here. So, it is sickling and I am trying in my own possible way to curb these practices. Let it be by choice that somebody doesn’t want to have a child because if you have a girl child, you have to be aware of the responsibility. Every child needs appropriate care but a girl child needs more care. Every child needs the parents, not only mother to read up from age one and to know things you need to prepare this child for, more particularly girl child, because women are peculiar and are the one having menstruation. When it comes to puberty, girls are the ones that will check that their breast are not coming up and it gives mental torture if such girls do not have parents that would help her grow into that, parent that will educate her that the fact that your mates are having now does not mean that your own won’t come.
These girls are the ones that will be bothered that they have not started menstruation and if nobody is there to give education before she starts, nobody will be there to guide, nobody will be there when she is having pains and most mothers don’t know that.
We also go to the market place to meet and educate their mothers. The last international day of menstrual hygiene on May 28, we were at four different markets in Oyo State, namely Aleshinloye, Mokola, Bodija and Dugbe to meet those women since some of them are claiming that they have not seen sanitary pads before. We believe that these mothers need to be captured and we went to distribute a lot of sanitary towels and we also educate them. Some of them were like they did not know because it is rags that they know and they are having children. We let them know that during their own time, it was the Lord’s doing but there are some that did not have children and died with infertility but it was not pronounced during their days.
Is It possible for the government to develop a policy to address issues like this by making it a policy for every public schools to have a female counselor who will always educate these young children? Is it possible for a policy to develop from this in the future? Menstruation is a monthly thing, what is the sustainability of this idea? Do you see people embracing it and more people funding it because we are still in Africa where majority of people are poor and they will be complaining of affordability.
Let me start with the policy, there is a way we politicise most things in Nigeria and when we talk about politicians in Nigeria, it is a different ball game. What we discover is that there is always a counselor or two in these secondary schools because when we go to each school, we will look for people to adopt those ones that are still using rags and we will buy sanitary towels that they will use for the whole year and keep them with the counselors. On a yearly basis, if I could get those that will be helping me to solve the problems of those that are still using rags, I am okay.
But the way to first discover them is for us to visit the school first and for this year’s International Day of the Girl Child, we will be going to Adifase Community Grammar School, we will go and encourage them that they can be who they want to be and their brains are not different from the guys and they should take their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) seriously. Then we will talk about menstrual health care and would see those that are still using other things besides sanitary towel.
The policy is very possible because they already have a counselor and my observation is that they have male counselor and female counselor, which is good. But it is for them to make sure that it is in their curriculum the works that the counselors will be doing for the student and that is just an aspect.
Another aspect is if you give all the awareness and there is nothing to use to support which is not supposed to be overlooked. There is money to be spent and the money is everywhere except in the hands of the right people. If government is ready to do it, they can. Some will say some schools don’t have roof on top of their head or they don’t have chairs to sit, if we continue to handle education the way we are handling it, we will continue to see schools like that but I tell you this that there is still enough money to get sanitary towels and government can ask for assistance from those producing good sanitary towels. The wife of the governor can ask and the governor himself can ask so that out of the production they’re making in a year, the government can buy at a highly subsidised rate and those companies will use it as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). So, it is possible but it is because the awareness is not there for people in government, they’re not even seeing it.
The sustainability Is there because I asked myself at a particular time that ‘ki ni mo ko ara mi si,’ sorry I am a Yoruba woman. How will I meet up? How many people will I be able to help? But I was reminded by the Holy Spirit that Jesus came for everybody but He walked with the little in Israel and left the rest. I cannot do everything even if I get a grant today, I cannot do everything but the bit that I will do. Those that we are giving awareness talk to today will go out and tell others. We always tell them to go and tell their friends in their neighbourhood and share with them the right way to carry on and this is what can happen later in future if you do not take good care of yourself in that area.
Finally, the International girl child day is approaching, what message do you have for girl child in Nigeria?
For the young girls in Nigeria, the message I have for them is for them to accept themselves because God has created you as a girl child and He did not make a mistake so accept yourself because whatever background you are coming from, don’t let anybody use that to make you throw your head below your shoulder, accept yourself and while you are accepting yourself and your background, you don’t let the background hold you back, you will forge forward.
Then, be passionate about your dream and don’t dream small, dream big, be who you want to be in the future. Have vision and be very passionate. Then, don’t just have dream or vision of who you want to be. Look around for who has been the who you want to be and have a role model or better still a mentor. I always prefer a mentor because you don’t know much about a role model because it is always so far off like you’re looking at a figurine and they look so fantastic but when you get so close, you will be like no I don’t want again. So, get a mentor, not one mentor, it could be a mentor in the area of your profession, who you want to be or the field you want to go into.
Then the woman you want to mature into, get those ones because it’s very necessary and when you’re doing that, make sure you keep yourself and keep your head high. Work tall because you’re wonderfully and beautifully made. Always know that there can’t be a nation without a woman. Carry yourself well, be happy with yourself, don’t let anybody use what you don’t have to pull you back. Mind the company you keep and when you accept yourself and love yourself for who you are, it makes you feel good and you should know you have a bigger picture for the future and it makes you feel good and once in a while, you sing for yourself. When you’re feeling down, carry yourself well and tell yourself that you’re a nation and you must give birth to goodness, greatness. So, you will be working towards that. Have your vision and your goal in front of you and don’t allow any boy to mess you up. You protect yourself because nobody can protect you. You make yourself happy because nobody can make you happy.
Do you know what they bring to you, because you’re not experiencing much love at home because of your age, you think that your parents don’t love you because they discipline you and you will see these boys saying nice things, I tell you that you’re aiming for a doom, tell yourself by thinking of what will make you happy and work towards it. As you grow older, your vision will be expanding. If you want to be a doctor, you should know how and if you want to be a business guru, you should know how. Anything you don’t know, ask Google because everything is on Google. Coding is not just for boys, celebrate yourself and part of celebrating yourself is singing for yourself, look at yourself in the mirror that you’re wonderfully and beautifully made. Even, when you’re feeling oppressed at home, know that suru ti o ni ojo ni and don’t start thinking that somebody is somewhere that will make you happy, you’re deceiving yourself. You own yourself that happiness and you will get there.