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A Tragic Compromise

About two months ago I sent an e-mail to Good Shepherd supporters telling them about an exciting project that we were launching: providing reusable sanitary pads for the girls in Ghana so that they would be able to attend school when they have their periods. It is well documented that African girls typically stay home from school when they are menstruating, largely due to the lack of sanitary products. While I have taken them disposable pads in the past, this “solution” creates a problem of its own since they have no way to dispose of them. And, of course, the quantities are limited so they eventually run out.

I was very excited when I discovered Glad Rags, a manufacturer of reusable pads based in the U.S., and after speaking with the founder she offered to sell us the pads at a very reduced price so that we could provide them to the girls in Ghana. I was even more excited when my friends and family so quickly responded to the request and purchased over 250 pads!

With the help of my daughter’s high school club, Hope 4 Ghana, we put together “kits” for 66 girls. Each kit consisted of a little knapsack filled with 4 Glad Rags, 2 pairs of underwear (donated by girls at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan), and a waterproof “tote” to hold the soiled pads when they are at school.

Once we got to Ghana, we gathered up the 66 girls who were to receive the pads, and provided an explanation and demonstration of how to use them. They were so appreciative and enthusiastic about the promise that this gift held. We received many heartfelt “thank you’s”, and we have asked them to report back to us about how they fare with this new product. If it’s a success, we’ll take more the next time we go.

Then we took the opportunity to have a “sex education and pregnancy prevention” talk with them. Teenage pregnancy is a big problem in Ghana; 30% of pregnancies are to girls age 19 or younger. We know that educating girls is one way of postponing pregnancy (and limiting the overall number of babies they will have)... the more years they are educated, the longer they put off having babies. We also know that girls in Ghana who become pregnant are automatically expelled from school; there are no “second chances” for these girls. And we know that birth control is not readily accepted or available in these remote areas. So we were teaching abstinence as the only reliable way to avoid pregnancy. Makes sense, right? Sadly, it’s not this simple.

After giving our “talk”, we asked the girls if they had any questions... and that’s when we had one of those moments where we are painfully confronted with our cultural ignorance. A sweet 13-year-old girl from the village raised her hand and asked us “Is it alright if I have a helper?” I looked at my daughter, Julia, and my friend, Joanie, to see if either of them had any idea what she was talking about... none of us did so I asked, “What is a helper?” She and the other girls then explained to us that some of the girls from the villages cannot pay their nominal school fees, so a man will offer to be their “helper”, paying their fees and buying their uniform and books. It is understood that, in return, the girl will provide the man with sexual favors.

The girls were very matter-of-fact about it; this is an aspect of their culture that they do not question. Meanwhile, the three of us abrunis (white people) were struggling to take in the horrible Catch-22 that exists for these girls. Desperate to have an education so that they can improve their lives, they have sex with men who will pay for them to attend school, but as soon as they get pregnant they will be kicked out of school, and then they will be worse off than when they started. The men typically do not stick around to marry the mother or help pay for the baby.

People who know me will attest to the fact that I am rarely speechless, and yet at that moment I found that I could not speak. I was struggling to figure out this puzzle, refusing to accept that there really was no way out of this Catch-22. Slowly, I had the horrible realization that abstinence is a “luxury” that some girls cannot afford. If life in the village offers no hope, and taking on a “helper” offers some little bit of hope, these girls will take the gamble. Sadly, they really havenothing to lose.

As so often happens when I am in Africa, I felt a mixture of horror and a renewed commitment to help. We must help these girls get the education they need without having to sell their bodies. Our high school sponsorships will rescue many of the girls from this horrible situation, but we now know that we need to start providing them with extra support even earlier... making sure that they do not end up as one more poor, single teenage mother struggling everyday to feed herself and her child... possibly turning once again to a “helper” to provide food, only to find herself pregnant again... and so on... and so on...

Since that time, we have developed an “outreach program” where the orphanage volunteers are going into the villages after school, getting to know the families and the students that live in these villages in a more personal way. Our goal is to make sure that none of “our girls” have to make this decision; that we will be able to provide them with financial assistance so that they can complete their education without risking their futures and their lives.

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