Monday, May 28, 2018

Teen girls in Cambodia empowered through puberty knowledge and education

By Stina Heikkila and Sovath Ngin

Students from Grade 7 share their experiences of growth and changes.
Kabo Secondary School, Krong Kratie district, Kratie province.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Fani Llaurado

Kratie Province, Cambodia, May 2018 – A change is in the air as the sun beats down on Kabo Lower Secondary School ahead of afternoon classes.

Excited chatter and giggles emanate from classrooms as girls and boys tease each other playfully as they wait for their teachers to arrive.

A sense of ‘teenage spirit’ pervades as though the students are mindful they are on the road to adulthood.

This transition is not always an easy ride, especially where cultural taboos make discussions of sexual development a ‘no-go’ area.

However, the adage ‘knowledge is power’ rings true in Kabo Lower School as female students have gained empowerment through the Growth and Changes booklet which gives guidance to and debunks myths about puberty.

Before class starts, we ask the teacher if some Grade 7 female students can be excused to chat about the booklet – a request she readily agrees to if the girls are happy to discuss such personal matters. 

They are! We head off to a shady area to gain their insight into the inner turmoil of the teenage years.

We ask if they have experienced their first periods and to whom they turned when it happened.

All but one have and they said they went to their mother or grandmother for initial guidance.

Thirteen-year-old Yo Solida said she was unaware of menstruation before it happened and got really scared to find blood in her underwear one day at school.

The other girls nod in agreement. They said they recognize themselves in the stories in the Growth and Changes booklet about girls undergoing puberty which “has been a great source of information”. They have all read the entire booklet at least once and this has offered reassurance.

Female students at Kabo Secondary School, Krong Kratie district
in Kratie province say that they have read the booklet
and have discussed its contents with each other outside school hours.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Fani Llaurado

A UNICEF study conducted in 2016 revealed that 58 per cent of Cambodian school girls were too embarrassed to talk about their menstruation and 17 per cent missed school during their periods.

To help girls and boys gain vital and accurate knowledge about puberty and to empower girls so they can continue their regular schooling even after getting their periods, the Ministry of Education Youth and Sports (MoEYS), the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), UNICEF and UNFPA together developed the booklet titled ‘Growth and Change’.  The illustrated and colourful publication details physical and mental changes such as menstruation; gives advice on how to manage mood swings; and reassures girls that it is normal to feel sad, happy, angry and confused – sometimes all at the same time.’

Since 2014, UNICEF has supported the distribution of nearly 150,000 copies of the booklet to primary and lower secondary schools in 11 provinces in Cambodia. In 2017, all Grade 5 to 8 students in Kratie received a copy. 

The booklet “Growth and Changes” helps girls to better understand
the changes happening to their bodies during puberty.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Chansereypich Seng

At Kabo secondary school, this small and simple booklet has helped the girls advance into adolescence with greater ease and we witnessed their great pride in becoming confident and empowered young women.

We ask if they are shy and reluctant to reveal personal matters with teachers and peers and the answer is a resounding ‘no!’

Before they received the booklet, the girls said topics of this nature were not discussed openly but now they can talk freely about fears and misconceptions.

“Before reading the book I didn’t know about the different ways to manage the pain. I learnt that I can put a hot water bottle on my tummy to ease period pains and it worked,” said Chan Simak, 13 years old.

“I also thought that when I have my period, I should not jump around, or drink cold water but the book says that it is fine to do both,” she added.

Regarding hygienic menstruation practices, the booklet has also helped positively shape girls’ habits.

“Now when I know that I need to change my sanitary pad every three to four hours, I do it in the school latrine. I bring a black plastic bag with me to hide it when I throw it away afterwards,” said Yo Solida.

One girl said that when she bleeds a lot she follows advice in the booklet and puts an extra cloth in her underwear which she then washes at home.

When it comes to learning about how to
manage their hygiene during menstruation,
the booklet ‘Growth and Change’ has also helped
to shape the girls’ habits. They know now
how often they need to change the sanitary pad.
Kabo Secondary School, Krong Kratie district, Kratie province.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Fani Llaurado

Several of the girls also recall being worried when their period did not occur monthly so they told their mothers who then took them to hospital. 

From reading the booklet they are now aware that this does not need to be a concern, especially in the beginning.

Some have shared information in Growth and Changes with their mothers and grandmothers and these older family members are now more mindful about myths propagated by traditional medicine practitioners.

For example, some believed drinking ice cold water will freeze the blood and make the menstruation irregular, or eating sour fruits can stop blood flow.

Because Growth and Changes is an official education publication and distributed in school it has credibility which has helped to change the mind-set of parents and grandparents.

Girls are not the only ones benefitting from this intervention. Boys have been given a booklet called To Become a Young Man which details male changes in adolescence such as a deepening of the voice and sexual arousal.

The girls giggle nervously when we ask if they have read the boy’s booklet. One girl said she has read her brother’s book and it has opened her mind to new information.

Going forward, the girls said they would like more advice on managing mood swings, cramps and other problems linked to menstruation.

We could have stayed the whole afternoon chatting openly with these girls, but they had to return to class and we had to go to the next school to continue with our assessment of the initiative, including ways to improve how the teens gain further information about growth and changes. UNICEF will continue expanding this important initiative in collaboration with Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

As programme officers working on this project, it was highly gratifying for us to see these young Cambodian girls empowered to talk about previous off-limits topics openly and confidently.

*The booklet ‘Growth and Changes’ is available for free download from UNICEF Cambodia’s website.

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