The Girl Wearing a Classmate’s Underwear
Human dignity becomes secondary when poverty dictates whether someone will have a meal or not, where and how they live and if a girl has underwear or not.
The challenges facing some of the girls sponsored by Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope (CHHH) are heartbreaking. For me, they are not new. It is, however, the depth of these girls’ psychological suffering and how their education is impacted, that creates new wounds as well as retrieving some bitter memories of my childhood years. One of the sponsored girls’ story reminded me of two incidents still vivid in my mind.
It’s close to 45 years ago, but I still recall the day my mother bought my young sister her first underwear. The structure we called our house was about 50 yards from where my grandfather’s hut was. I was sitting next to my grandfather, a great storyteller—when not under the influence of traditional liquor, when we heard, “Nau, Nau, ona suwali wakwa!” “Grandpa, Grandpa, see my underwear!”
It was my sister (five or six years old) who wanted Grandpa to see her first underwear. In the culture I grew up in, underwear was a sacred possession not for public display. But my sister was so overjoyed she had to show it to her grandpa.
I wish God could erase the memory of the second poverty-related girl’s underwear incident. From time to time, female teachers would inspect girls’ cleanliness in my elementary school while male teachers inspected the boys in a separate classroom. One day, there was a thunder of laughter in the classroom where the girls were.
A girl in 6th grade was wearing torn underwear and a teacher lifted up her dress and displayed it for the others to see. I was in 3rd grade and that girl’s name is the only name I remember of all the students in the 4th-7th grade other than my relatives. I still see her humiliated face as she walked home alone. She had been summarily dismissed from school until she could wear decent underwear.
My sister and my schoolmate at least had their mothers with whom they could talk to about their predicament. The CHHH student who was courageous enough to discuss her inhuman challenges lost her mother ten years ago when she was young. A bright student with astonishing self-discipline, focus and determination to be somebody someday, she sometimes misses classes due to lack of hygiene supplies.
That is a predicament of thousands of girls living in poverty-stricken families, whether they are orphans or not. Lack of affordable sanitary pads can have devastating lifelong consequences for adolescent girls in developing countries. Unable to afford sanitary pads, countless girls resort to dangerous alternatives, including recycling used pads, or using mattresses or unthinkable replacements.
Yet, sanitary pads, for an entire school term—4 months, cost about $25-$30.
Culture plays a significant role in the young girls’ dilemma. Traditionally, girls were provided feminine education by their mothers and grandmothers as they worked together. But today, a large number of girls are orphans or have only one parent, a jobless father. Feminine and sex related matters are still a taboo between fathers and their daughters.
Keeping girls in school delays their sexual debut and makes early marriages and relationships with older men less likely. A recent report by UNICEF on Kenya found that while 40% of high school age or younger females, not in school, reported having had sex, the analogous number for females within the same age group who stay in school is 16%.
It has been said that when you educate a girl, you educate an entire community. We want to make sure no girl will stay at home because of the lack of sanitary pads. We want to equip them to get better education, provide for their families and be positive contributors in their communities. Our prayer and hope is to see girls excel in school and take up professional, high-paying jobs.
Mother Teresa told us that, “We cannot do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Through Caring Hearts and Hands of Hope, your kindness and generosity can do a great thing for a girl! To help, please mail your check to CHHH, Box 7152, Boise, Idaho 83707.