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This Jamaican woman is fighting ‘period poverty’ and daunting attitudes about reproductive health

Shelly-Ann Weeks talks about female reproductive health at an event at the Institute of Jamaica in March 2019. Photo courtesy of Her Flow Foundation.

Fuelled by her determination to make a difference in the sexual reproductive health of Jamaican women, author and columnist Shelly-Ann Weeks — fondly known as “Dr. Sexy-Ann” on Twitter and Facebook — uses both mainstream and digital media to focus on traditionally taboo topics.

For one: “period poverty.” As the executive director of Her Flow Foundation, an initiative designed to address stigma and shame associated with menstruation, Weeks established Jamaica's first Period Awareness Day, which took place in October 2016, as well as Period Awareness Week, held in October 2017.

By November 2018, Weeks had organised the first Healthy Pelvis Conference in the capital, Kingston. During the past school year, she has conducted awareness sessions at 27 schools, reaching over 5,000 students — both boys and girls — thanks to funding from the United States embassy.

Weeks has long recognised that the issue is just as much about long-held societal attitudes, cultural beliefs and myths as it is about economic status. Over several cups of coffee, she and I discussed the complexities of what remains a somewhat taboo issue, and why she decided to write a book about it.

Shelly-Ann Weeks holds up a pack of pads as she talks to youth about menstruation. Photo courtesy of Her Flow Foundation.

Emma Lewis (EL): You were already a popular media personality in the field of relationships and sexual health, but how did Her Flow begin?

Shelly-Ann Weeks (SW): I started Her Flow in 2016 as part of a project I was doing with WE-Change [a rights-based lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group]. I zoomed in on female reproductive health. I visited three schools to talk to students about puberty, mostly geared towards consent — that it’s OK to say “No.”

One girl told me she was able to make one menstrual pad last five days. I am not often speechless, but that shocked me! I thought, “Okay, I am going to get this girl some pads!” Talking to women while I was writing my first book, I realised so many have problems affording the products they need every month. And for the woman who has daughters, she literally has to choose between buying them pads and feeding them.

I realised that internationally there is a conversation going on around period poverty…the need is much greater than I had thought. I wanted to create a space where women could get access to pads free of cost, no questions asked. Because it’s a dignity issue as well.

EL: In your advocacy, you have talked about “breaking the silence” on the issue. Can you explain what you mean?

SW: Pain is a big part of women’s lives. We are not comfortable articulating to a doctor — we can’t even say the word “vagina” — and a lot of us end up suffering in silence. There are many myths and straight-up wrong information about periods. People are very superstitious. It’s really important, I think, for us to first of all, break the silence. This “hush-hush” attitude to female reproductive health is dangerous. If we are able to talk openly, there are a lot of benefits. Your quality of life is improved. The silence stops you from getting help.

EL: Why do you think the topic of menstruation is so “taboo”? Where does this come from?

SW: Oh, it’s clear: the Bible! A lot of Jamaicans’ feelings about female reproductive health — or even the rules about what women are allowed or not allowed to do — come from religion. And in Jamaica, that’s Christianity. If you think about the way the Bible talks about periods, the word ‘unclean’ comes up a lot. Even some Rastafarians in Jamaica actually do believe that a woman should be shut away and not allowed to come out until her period blood has been passed. Girls are taught to wash their underwear as soon as they remove it and not to let anyone know that she’s on her period. She needs to keep it to herself. Men and women are taught this way. But women push it more than men do.

Women community activists are honoured at a brunch hosted by Her Flow Foundation. Shelly-Ann Weeks is sixth from the right. Photo courtesy Her Flow Foundation, used with permission.

EL: In the schools you have visited, what was the response from teachers, students, and guidance counsellors?

SW: The teachers and counsellors love the book — there is nothing like it out there. There isn’t really a consistent way of teaching these matters; a lot depends on the personal whims of the teachers. We visited primary schools, where many girls have already started their periods. We insist that boys are a part of the class. If the boys are included, they know what’s going on. They’re exposed to something they never understood before. We invoke empathy in them; we teach them how to be more supportive. Engaging boys can only be a positive thing.

I think it’s important not to talk “at” the girls. We tend to underestimate how much information they can handle. It helps to show them that you know what it’s like.

What I have learned is that the biggest roadblock to all of this is their parents…especially the mothers. They should know that being kept in the dark is not helpful! The person who is hurt the most is the child.

EL: How do you get the message across in your advocacy?

SW: Social media has been a major tool from day one. We ran a social media campaign to donate products to schools and other institutions (the women’s prison, girls’ homes). I have had great support from Jamaicans living abroad, who have sent barrels. The public has really responded positively.

I would like to identify some funding to do some formal research on the extent of period poverty in Jamaica — I would like to see what that looks like. I know the need is there.

EL: What work have you done in 2019 and what are your plans for the future?

SW: In March, we honoured ten women doing amazing community work at a Celebrate Her brunch and we partnered with Desnoes and Geddes Foundation to fête over 100 students while giving them a period education session. In April, we partnered with young author and activist Marley Dias and the GrassROOTS Community Foundation in New Jersey to donate products to a high school in Montego Bay. We also partnered with Always on an End Period Poverty campaign, donating 13,000 packs of pads to girls in 20 high schools.

In September, in partnership with Jamaica AIDS Support for Life, we are planning a Live Safe college tour of 20 community and teachers’ colleges where we will offer free STD and HIV tests, period education sessions, condom distribution and more.

October is our Period Awareness Month. On Period Awareness Day, October 24, we will seek to spark a national conversation to seriously address the stigma and shame associated with menstruation through public awareness events. Our second Healthy Pelvis Conference on October 27 will address a range of female reproductive health issues.

In November, we are planning a Period Conference to help parents, guardians, and children. Men, especially fathers, will be encouraged to attend and participate.

It’s a full calendar!

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