Mr Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity, so each Mandela Day (celebrated annually on the 18th July) South Africans are challenged to give 67 minutes of their time to supporting their chosen charity or serving their local community. Mandela Day is a call to action for people everywhere to take responsibility for making the world a better place, one small step at a time. 2018 would have been Mr Mandela’s 100th birthday.
One of Mr Mandela’s well known quotes is “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and so it felt fitting that this year I spent my Mandela Day at a small primary school in the suburb of Vrygrond, Cape Town. I was there because this was one of the schools nominated by our colleagues to participate in our Hygiene Angels: Keeping girls in school project which was launched countrywide to 18 schools on Mandela Day.
The Hygiene Angels program has been developed in response to the ongoing issue of period poverty in South Africa. At Rentokil Initial we believe that access to safe and hygienic sanitary products is a basic human right, and as some of our core business involves ensuring the safe and hygienic disposal of sanitary products, it makes sense to us that we get involved in a project that is so closely aligned to our business.
But we didn’t want to just donate sanitary products. As the experts in hygiene it also felt important to us that we educate the students on good menstrual hygiene practices, as well as provide their schools with the services to ensure that the good habits we’re teaching can easily be put into practice.
Which is how I found myself standing in front of 80 schoolgirls in grades 5,6 and 7, talking about puberty, periods, sanitary bins and a whole lot in between, whilst my Initial colleagues installed hand sanitisers in the washrooms, feminine hygiene units in the girls bathrooms and arranged the quarterly deep cleaning hygiene treatments. Menstrual hygiene may be a core part of our business, but it’s still a subject that many people are uncomfortable talking about, especially young women who may not have a maternal or sisterly figure in their life open to such conversations.
Fortunately I have a nine year old daughter and a ten year old niece, and I had test run my presentation on them several times to gauge the tone. Despite being told by each of them that they would simply “die of embarrassment” if I even considered coming to their schools, their feedback was invaluable and helped me create a presentation that felt more child-friendly than the corporate content we usually create.
Whilst initially the girls were quite reserved and shy, by the end of the session I was fielding all sorts of questions, from “how are babies made?” to “do women in other countries also have periods” and “does your body go back to the way it was after you have a baby?”
The girls’ teachers and headteacher were present and at the end of the session they told me how valuable this sort of frank conversation is, coming from someone who isn’t their teacher or their mother, as well as how very necessary and welcome the donation was of free sanitary pads to the school. Many of the girls at their school are “backyard dwellers”: they live in a small shack in the backyard of someone else’s home, and as such access to sanitary products is often out of reach of the family’s limited finances.
Eventually we had to call an end to the questions as the girls needed to get back to class, but I left to hugs from the girls (and requests to come and talk to them again) and smiles from the teachers, and an overwhelming feeling that not only had I spent my 67 minutes extremely well this year, but that this project can make an ongoing and real difference in the lives of school age girls.
Education is indeed the most powerful weapon one can use to change the world, but in order to get an education, our girls need to be able to stay in school during their periods. The Hygiene Angels project will continue after Mandela day, with regular monthly donations of free sanitary pads, hygiene services and educational talks at our partner schools.