A new peacebuilding initiative by Earlham College students aims to break the stigma associated with menstruation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Maida Raza ’22 and Summia Tora ’20 have earned $10,000 from the Davis Projects for Peace program to conduct the Dosti Initiative, a project that will result in summer workshops at grade schools in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mehrabpur, Pakistan. Dosti means friendship in Persian and Urdu, primary languages in both countries.
“There is a lot of hostility between both countries for political reasons and also due to the presence of large number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan,” says Tora, an Economics and Peace & Global Studies double major. “We thought we could make a difference by not only teaching girls about menstruation but also by using it as a means of bringing people together to talk about common challenges and teaching them to work together.”
The project, which will be implemented from May 22 to June 18 at a local Kabul high school in Afghanistan and Mehrabpur Girls Primary School in Pakistan, has three objectives:
- Educate girls about menstruation and train them to make reusable sanitary napkins;
- Connect the girls virtually to share and learn about their experiences of menses and promote an understanding of shared social and cultural history between Pakistan and Afghanistan; and
- Promote peace in communities through fairs that provide access to sanitary napkins and connect women across borders.
Both students can recall moments in their own childhoods that reinforce the need for such a project. Tora, an Afghan refugee who attended middle school in Pakistan, did not receive education about menstruation at home or as part of her education. Raza, a native of Pakistan who attended high school in India, learned that people from both nations were capable of working together despite a history of hostility toward each other.
The goal is to develop a similar level of collaboration and cooperation between Afghanis and Pakistanis.
“We know that this is not going to be an easy project,” Raza says. “We are going to villages where if you start talking about menstruation the students will start laughing. Some of them have this notion that it is a disease and it is unnatural that women have periods every month.
“It’s very important that we start talking about topics that are not discussed as much so at least there will be some conversation on these topics,” she says. “It’s a challenge worth taking.”
Data from a new report released by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) offers a more precise snapshot of the challenge ahead of them: 50 percent of young women in both countries lack access to sanitary napkins or basic knowledge of menstruation. In Afghanistan, 29 percent of girls miss school and 80 percent are not allowed to attend social events during their menses.
Tora says UNICEF recently published a pamphlet that has been distributed in Afghanistan, perhaps the only public education available about menstruation in certain regions of the country.
“There isn’t a lot happening in Afghanistan to educate women about menstruation,” Tora says. “A lot of women in Afghanistan don’t have access to a basic sanitary pad because it’s so expensive or they feel shy talking about. It’s so taboo and stigmatized to a point where women do not even want to go out in public to purchase pads.”
Such widespread fear often leads to other undesirable consequences, including infection and infertility, Raza says.
“The village that I am targeting has seen a diminishment of the reproductive abilities of women due to the use of cloth instead of a sanitary napkin,” she says. “The inability to bear a child has been shown to increase violence against women in a deeply male-dominated society.”
Before being awarded funding from Davis Projects for Peace, both students were working on a similar project independently. With mentorship from Earlham faculty and the College’s Center for Social Justice, both students united to produce a stronger project that is now expected to impact 200 girls and young women.
“The amount of support we have gotten from faculty, even other students, has just been so positive and encouraging,” Tora says. “Everyone at Earlham has been willing to help and support us.”
The pair said Rajaram Krishnan, Professor of Economics; Jonathan Diskin, Director of the Center for Social Justice; Patty Lamson, Director of the Center for Global Education; and Sara Paule, Director of Foundation Relations and Sponsored Programs, were especially valuable.
“They let us visit them in their offices without appointments and provided us with valuable perspectives,” Raza says. “Had it not been for their help, this project might not have been selected.”
Projects such as these are encouraged by Earlham’s Epic initiative, a four-year journey that combines the academic major with transformative learning experiences, including research, off-campus study, internships, and leadership development to prepare students exceptionally well for life beyond Earlham.
Earlham also offers The Epic Advantage — a funded internship, project or research experience of up to $5,000 per student — a level of support that few other institutions in the country can match.
Earlhamites are strong candidates for funding from the Davis Projects for Peace program, which began in 2007 on the occasion of philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis’ 100th birthday. Until her death at 106 in 2013, Davis was intent on advancing the cause of peace and sought to motivate tomorrow’s leaders by challenging them to find ways to work to “prepare for peace.” The Davis family continues to honor her legacy by funding Projects for Peace.
Each year Earlham funds an additional summer Peace Project.