How Seenaa & Sabboontu are Destigmatizing Menstruation
Seenaa and Sabboontu lean over a wooden table. One traces a small, oblong-like pattern on fabric as the other threads a needle. They cut matching shapes, stitch them together in pairs, and carefully secure a lining in between. Then they sew a small fastening snap on either side.
The girls hold up their creations, beaming with pride. The small fabric products, all of varying colours and patterns, are reusable sanitary pads made as part of an initiative led by the Right To Play Girls’ Club at their school.
“Although I [re]started from scratch, I am not discouraged.” – Sabboontu, 16
Seenaa and Sabboontu are student leaders in the Club. Both are 16 years old and live in Ethiopia—a country where 75% of women and girls do not have access to hygiene products to manage their periods.
They’re making the pads to help change that. Menstruation is a significant barrier to girls’ access to education in their country, and both Seenaa and Sabboontu know firsthand how difficult it can be for an Ethiopian girl to go to school, with or without her period.
OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO THRIVE AT SCHOOL
Both Seenaa and Sabboontu have overcome tremendous challenges to stay in school.
When Seenaa was younger, like more than 24% of Ethiopian children aged 5 to 17, she was sent to work to help support her family. With daytime hours taken up by her job, her only option for education was to attend night classes.
Determined, she did. But the exhausting schedule led to a significant drop in her grades.
“During menstruation, I used to miss classes for at least a week because there was no safe place to change a sanitary pad in our school.” — Seenaa, 16
Poverty has also deeply affected Sabboontu’s education. As a child, her family struggled to afford supplies like notebooks, pencils, and the compulsory school uniform. Still, Sabboontu says, “I was a very good student. I had hope.”
That hope came all but crashing down when family instability forced Sabboontu from her parents' home as a young teenager. She went to live with relatives but, without proper records, could not enroll in the correct grade at her new school.
Her only option: begin again from Grade 1. Determined, she did.
Girls in Ethiopia face the threat of abuse in every area of their lives. Schools rarely have secure, gender-segregated spaces, such as toilets, and the walk to and from their classes can be dangerous. Particularly in rural areas, like where Seenaa and Sabboontu live, abduction can be used as a means of recruiting child brides. Rates of early forced marriage have increased as Ethiopians struggle with the social, political, and economic fallout of events like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite these challenges, both Seenaa and Sabboontu are back in school full-time. Seenaa is no longer engaged in child labour and attends regular daily classes. Sabboontu has advanced, once again, to Grade 8.
Both girls are at the top of their class and eager to keep climbing.
“With the problems I’ve faced, I am always proud that I started my studies again from [the beginning],” says Sabboontu.
CREATING SAFE SPACES FOR GIRLS
After all that they’ve been through to secure their access to education, neither Seenaa nor Sabboontu wants to miss a single day of classes. Unfortunately, for many girls, menstruation absences are common. Schools rarely provide girls with safe, private spaces to manage their periods. Widespread stigma often characterizes menstruation as dirty or shameful, and entrenched cultural beliefs translate to many reaching puberty with little information about what is happening to their bodies. An estimated 50% of girls in rural Ethiopia miss classes during menstruation.
In 2022, Seenaa and Sabboontu joined a Girls’ Club at their school that had been established with support from a teacher, Sisay Wesene, and Right To Play. The Girls’ Club has made menstrual hygiene management a focus. The room where Seenaa and Sabboontu sew their reusable pads is dedicated to the Club. With bright blue walls, pink plastic chairs, and lime green balloons hung for decoration, it is a joyful, safe space where members can gather for regular meetings and activities and where students of all genders can learn the facts about menstrual health management and other topics. Hidden behind the privacy of a hanging curtain, there is a mattress dressed in a fitted sheet where students can find peace, quiet, and comfort during menstruation.
“There are female students below me—by the time they are old enough to menstruate, they don’t know anything about it,” Sabboontu says. “We are the first to reach [out to] them, either me, Ms. Sisay, or my friend Seenaa.”
The Club now has more than 240 student members, including both girls and boys. As part of their leadership role with the Club, Sisay, Sabboontu, and Seenaa received training on how to lead games that promote gender equality and self-esteem, and how to open up conversations on issues that affect students’ lives, like menstruation and sexual and reproductive health.
“The availability of a separate room raises my confidence to come to school, even during my menstrual cycle,” Seenaa says. “The same is true for other students.”
Sisay, the girls’ teacher, calls the girls an inspiration. “They are role models not only in their studies but also in the Girls’ Club,” she says. “[They] give their own life experience as an example to others … I expect them to reach big places.”
LEADING POSITIVE CHANGE
Right To Play has been supporting the establishment of Girls’ Clubs across Ethiopia, Lebanon, Mali, Mozambique, the Palestinian Territories, and Tanzania since 2020 as a part of its five-year Enhancing Quality and Inclusive Education (EQIE) program. Funded by NORAD, EQIE aims to improve all students' learning outcomes and increase school access and retention of girls and children with disabilities. There are currently Right To Play-supported Girls’ Clubs in 36 schools across Ethiopia that collectively engage more than 2,650 students.
Participating in the Girls’ Club has helped Sabboontu build her confidence as a public speaker and advocate—skills that she will need to one day achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer.
Aspiring doctor Seenaa says she feels empowered to speak openly and without fear about issues that affect girls and women, such as gender-based violence—even with boys.
“[Sabboontu and Seenaa] are role models not only in their studies but also in the Girls’ Club.” – Sisay, Teacher
The trust both girls have forged with Sisay is a critical source of support. For all students dealing with the pressures of puberty and the many social and economic challenges of adolescence in rural Ethiopia, having a trusted adult to confide in can be life-changing.
“I work with these children not only as a teacher but also as a mother and an older sister," Sisay says. “And we meet with their parents to talk about what is going on in their lives.”
And the students truly appreciate it.
“We went through a lot to make [the Club] beautiful, and behind it all is Ms. Sisay’s contribution,” says Sabboontu. “When I am with her, I become comforted. I admire her so much.”
“I am very grateful for Ms. Sisay,” Seenaa adds. “I tell my problems to her and my friend Sabboontu, and they help me solve them.”
The Enhancing Quality and Inclusive Education (EQIE) program is possible thanks to the generous support of NORAD. EQIE works to improve access to quality education for marginalized children, including children with disabilities, in Ethiopia, Lebanon, Mozambique, the Palestinian Territories, and Tanzania.