“Do you think my vagina will be safe in the car?” asked Sue Barnes as we alighted from our rental vehicle. It would have struck me as an unusual sort of question but for the fact that we had been discussing Sue’s vagina and other related topics for the best part of the morning. We were on one of our “menstrual missions”, distributing packs of Sue’s miraculous washable, reusable Subz sanitary pads to 500 impoverished girls from 5 desperately needy community schools.
Before handing out the packs, Subz founder and inventor Sue does a brilliant talk in which she lovingly explains menstruation and the fact that each girl’s body is a precious thing; something to be honoured and respected. This is not as obvious as it might seem to you or I. As I have written before, many of these girls make use of toilet paper, newspaper and even soiled sanitary pads belonging to friends or relatives during their monthly period. The harsh reality is that menstruation will keep over 60% of South African girls away from school for a cumulative total of more than one-and-a-half years of their 5-year high school career. This makes passing matric virtually impossible and their options become limited to menial work or worse still a life at the mercy of a sugar daddy, now disingenuously referred to as a “Blesser”.
For the purposes of illustrating the various parts of a woman’s body, Sue makes use of some highly innovative props; an apron complete with breasts, removable nipples and a vagina and a 3D model of a woman’s pelvis. This is the particular prop that she was referring to when we got out of the car.
Spending time with Sue Barnes on what she refers to as a school activation, is a truly enriching experience. Not only do you get to see the utter joy on girls faces as they receive their free 3-year supply of washable, reusable sanitary pads, but you also get to speak openly about sex, breasts, nipples, penises and vaginas. I find this to be extremely liberating and very necessary in our society.
You see a significant contributing factor to our very high levels of woman abuse, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, abandonments etc. is the gradual erosion of dignity and sanctity that so many girls and women in our country experience. This happens when young women are denied access to proper information presented in a respectful, open fashion and products that dignify them and celebrate their femininity. I also believe that the language (or lack thereof) that we use for sex and related issues is highly problematic and plants early seeds in both boys and girls that sex is dirty and shameful – even violent. This creates fertile soil for later perversion and abuse to flourish.
When Cathy and I became parents we made a decision to refer to our and Lolly’s genitals by their proper names. No peepee and foofoo for this family! We allow her to look, we talk with her about our differences and – in an age appropriate fashion – we answer her questions. It is quite telling that we have copped some serious flak for this approach.
Now please understand, this is all new to us and something that we are really battling with ourselves. In fact, we have to steel ourselves every time we use the words or have the conversation. Neither Cathy nor I come from families in which sex was discussed. In fact, recently, Lolly loudly announced to her Granny that she had an itchy vagina and my poor old Mum nearly lost her lunch. “Don’t say that word!” she said in hushed tones.
Now my Mum’s response would actually be Cathy and my response had we not taken the decision to make a concerted effort to try and normalise these things. This is an attempt to help our child grow up without the sexual hang-ups that we have.
My point is that so many kids grow up with a sense that you can’t even call something its proper name – it’s that bad. The words vagina and penis – even menstruation or intercourse – have almost become swear words to the point where we often use slang words to describe our reproductive life and organs; words we deem to be more appropriate but that I would not necessarily put into print.
So, many children – girls in particular – grow up stripped of their dignity through a combination of shame, a lack of suitable sanitary products and very low levels of real understanding around their menstrual cycle and even how they get pregnant. This leads to a degradation of their and others sexual selves because of a general lack of care and openness around these topics. For this reason, I suggested to Sue Barnes that this Child Protection Month we should launch a “Love Your Penis Love Your Vagina” campaign. Even she said no!
However, you can help. To date Mercury readers have raised a staggering R150k for girls to hear Sue’s life-changing talk and receive a pack of washable, reusable sanitary pads. With your support we have reached over 1000 needy girls in 10 schools. We invite you to join us and sponsor a (nother) 3-year supply of pads and panties for one girl. For just R140 you will change her life forever.
The Peace Agency bank details are as follows:
FNB Durban North
Acc #: 6215 995 8217
Branch code: 22-04-26
Please reference your donation with “Project Dignity”
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.