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Protecting a precious gift

“You knit me together in my mother’s womb”

I begin, reading from Psalm 139. “Munandiumba ndisanadwe ine,” Thoko reads from the Chichewa Bible. Dozens of school-aged young women and married ladies fill the church.

I know that talking about women’s health is taboo in many villages, and I’m about to project a picture of a womb on the church wall, so I need to start this off well.

“The psalmist was a man, but even he knew that the womb was a place where important, even sacred processes happen. David says ‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’ Today I want to teach about the incredible things that happen inside a woman’s body, how that is part of how God made women special, and how we can stay healthy.”

I remind them that Jesus healed a woman who was bleeding for too long, and that the Bible shows that God cares about women’s health. I ask their permission to talk about these somewhat difficult topics in a church, and when they agree, Thoko and I dive in.

We talk about the inside parts of a woman – about the eggs, the tubes, the womb, the birth canal. We talk about the incredible design – farmers prepare fields every year with great difficulty, but a woman’s body prepares everything needed for life each month without her even thinking about it. We talk about how to make periods less painful and outward signs that a woman’s body is healthy or unhealthy. Thoko’s booming voice holds the whole group in attention. She joins me explaining the diagram on the wall, boldly points to her own belly for emphasis, and even dances little jigs now and then to drive points home as needed.

After fielding some questions, we approached even more difficult subjects: How women have the right to say no to unwanted relations, how any intercourse can lead to pregnancy, and how infections can lead to infertility later in life. How they shouldn’t stay quiet if an assault happens, because getting to a clinic within two days can make the difference between getting protective antiviral medications or getting HIV/AIDS. We tell the girls that their bodies are precious and they can speak up and should protect themselves.

We know that we are standing against some cultural norms here, but we stand together – a female pastor and a female doctor, trying to plant the idea that these young women should value themselves. We call upon the older women in the room to protect these younger women so that they can finish school and build families of their own when they are ready.

We acknowledge that this is an awkward topic, and unusual to discuss in a church. But I remind them of times the Bible showed how a woman’s body should be respected, and the consequences when it is not.

“What better place is there than the church to protect young women and bring health to communities?” I ask. One woman stands up and says that this is a perfect teaching for the church, that the young women in this village need to learn to value themselves, and that the older women in the church can help protect them.

As we finish up, my friend Roberta hands out re-usable cloth pads and a couple pairs of underwear to each young woman. There is giggling again as they try wrapping the pads around the underwear. For some, this will be the first time they own panties or pads. We pray that these little packs will help them stay in school throughout the month instead of staying home during every period.

It’s one thing for a group of adolescent girls to listen respectfully during a presentation about how to stay healthy, and it’s always great when they ask important questions. But when the girls come together and bring the lessons to life, that’s when I know that the teachings will stick.

Groups of girls walked from villages up to 2 hours away, invited by chiefs and escorted by mentors who accompanied them at the training and prepared a nice meal for them in the middle of the day.  150 young women were selected to attend today’s training, but in the end, 179 came.  Most of the teaching and questions happened in the morning. Before lunch, Thoko and I divided the girls and l into eight groups and assigned them topics for their dramas.  When we came back from eating, that’s when the magic happened.

The first group’s topic was, “how to explain what you have learned here to a younger girl.”  They set the stage in a family home. As a girl comes in after staying out late with boys, her mother reprimands her in front of her siblings.  “You’re not a little girl anymore. Don’t you know you can get pregnant at any time?” The audience giggles uncomfortably at the mention of periods and pregnancy, even though we’re in our seventh hour of discussing these personal issues.

The next group prepares a skit with a group of girls talking about personal hygiene.  One girl complains that she doesn’t have money for painkillers or pads while her friends group up around her. “Pads that you throw away are for city women” her friend advises. “Here is what we use in the village.” Her other friends gather around and talk to her about ways to help with her bleeding and cramps, about exercise, drinking plenty of water, and using warm compresses.  I love that these girls are acting out how they will be advising their friends and sisters in the future.

One group acts out an elaborate two-part story starting with a girl running off from her friends to cling onto a guy.  Later, the girl brings the guy to the clinic to discuss treatment for infections.  A final group, tasked with the topic, “What to do if a man is bothering you,” brought the group to laughs and tears with a sketch about how a man (acted by one of the conference participants, she was wearing a long skirt but you could tell she was a man because of the way she sauntered around and talked with a low voice) tries to proposition a girl by offering her money. Her friends then come around her and tell her that they will help her if she needs money, but she shouldn’t risk her health and her future giving this man what he asks for. The group of girls then chase off the man together.

The day ends on these lighthearted notes, as the girls show that they have internalized the teachings about their health and their value as women, and with a model of how they will spread the news and hopefully change some of the culture in their villages.  But I know today is only a beginning.

One of the women who brought girls from a village farther away says, “I’ve never heard these things discussed in church before.” She wants to hold a training next month in her own village. As a pastor’s wife she is starting to see how the church can help these women find value and community, rather than blaming them for conduct which probably wasn’t their idea in the first place.  Thoko plans to build community needlework groups with these girls and their mentors, so that they can continue these important conversations and feel that they have a place to belong.  I’ve been working to find ways to put these teachings into a Chichewa booklet from which any woman can teach, since I don’t want my physical presence to be the limiting factor for girls to get this training.

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