A handful of Southwest Florida women traveled through rural Guatemala this past November, distributing much-needed reusable menstrual kits they spent months creating. They include hand-sewn cotton bases that clip onto underwear, and tucked into them are flannel pads, which can be changed out and washed for reuse. Medical experts in the Central American country say some women in rural areas there are isolated during their periods, sitting on rags at home, which can lead to health issues.
The Fort Myers women also assisted with sex education workshops in places where that kind of conversation is taboo. WGCU’s Jessica Meszaros journeyed with the women and has this report:
Sunbeams fall through the windows of a small public library in San Juan la Laguna, a rural Guatemalan village only accessible by boat along Lake Atitlán. Local women ages 8 to 41 surround teacher Rita Chajil, who’s from a neighboring village. A few of the young women are breastfeeding their babies, as Chajil talks to them about sex.
“Nosotros en el vocabulario personal tenemos que enseñar y empezar a llamar las cosas por su nombre," she says in Spanish.
She tells the women they need to start using the correct terminology for their body parts, instead of being embarrassed and using whatever nicknames they’re used to.
The workshop takes it a step further and has the women play a game of Bingo, where they need to pick sexual words from a list and first write them in their empty Bingo charts. Then if they win and get five of their words in a row called out, they need to say the words aloud in order to get their prizes, which are school supplies.
The women and girls say words like "orgasm," "testicles" and "contraceptive," among others. And it’s progress from earlier when some of the women told the instructor they were not comfortable even writing the words down, let alone saying them. The women go on to learn how to use condoms and other safe sex practices.
Elizabeth Escobar Sanchez, 36, from San Juan la Laguna is participating in the workshop. She says they need these talks here.
"Es muy bonito, muy importante para la comunidad de San Juan la Laguna porque hay lugares que los padres tienen miedo explicarles a las hijas que es la menstruación y que es tener relaciones sexuales," says Sanchez.
She says this is important for the local community because some parents are afraid to explain menstruation to their young daughters or what it means to have sexual relations. They’re worried that communicating these things might drive them to have sex early.
But Sanchez says this workshop taught her how to have open conversations with the young women in her family.
A second meeting a few hours away in the city of Totonicapán, starts with a prayer. About 40 medicine women from across the area, wearing long colorful skirts, join hands with four volunteers from Fort Myers. They create a large circle, surrounding lit candles on the floor, thanking the earth and their ancestors for life.
Then they dive into the workshop, which pretty much mirrors the first one along the lake. But something happens at the end of this seminar that did not happen at the first one. When the Fort Myers women hand out menstrual kits, which include underwear and hand-sewn, reusable pads, many of the medicine women ask for more.
One woman says she knows a healer who could not make it and she wants to bring her a kit. Other healers also ask for extras to share with women in their neighborhoods. Participant Estela Gonzalez, 23, talks about how something as simple as reusable menstrual kits can impact her and these women.
"Muy necesario... en la economia, en la salud," she says.
Gonzalez says it’s necessary for the economy and health.
Economical so that women don’t spend money on sometimes expensive disposable pads, and healthy because medical experts say some women in rural Guatemala overuse disposable pads if they cannot afford more of them.
And other women are known to stay home sitting on rags, essentially isolating themselves during their periods. Both practices can lead to vaginal infections.
"Aqui como es el trabajo de las comadronas llevar esta información a las comunidades para poder compartir con las señoritas jovenes y madres de familias," says Gonzalez.
She says all the healers here will pass on this information within their communities and share what they learned with young women and mothers.
Genelle Grant of North Fort Myers arranged these workshops through donations to her organization called the GRACE Project. She used to conduct these workshops herself about 10 years ago, but eventually hired Mayan women from her audience to teach the sex education seminars in Guatemala.
"Having this little 'gringa' component, which I am, and working with women here who are Maya, we're a combination group that arrive and we're bringing words that even teachers don't learn about in their teacher's studies. They may learn about them but they’re not comfortable talking about them, " says Grant.
"One workshop last time, we were told not to talk about condoms because people couldn’t handle it-- the women. We totally know that they can and they come up afterwards and thank us because no one else teaches them these things so we get hugs and crying and 'thank you so much you’ve broken through the taboos and we can talk about this.'"
And that’s just how this ended. One-by-one, the local medicine women tightly hug the women of Fort Myers, thanking them.
During these seminars, the Mayan teachers began brainstorming a reusable menstrual kit business, possibly starting in a local shelter for abused women. The idea is to empower them with jobs and income, while also distributing a product that benefits women’s health in their areas.
Click below to hear Jessica Meszaros interview the three Fort Myers volunteers who helped and followed Genelle Grant to Guatemala about their takeaways from the trip. And below the audio is a photo slideshow of the volunteers: