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Breaking Taboos

Two undergraduates teach lessons in women’s health and empowerment to teenage girls in West Africa

By Andrea Appleton

Spring | Summer 2019

Geneva Magsino and Hannah Clarke

From left: In summer 2018, Geneva Magsino (CWR ’19) and Hannah Clarke spent two months in Sierra Leone, providing sexual health and hygiene education to girls who otherwise had few or no opportunities to discuss such topics openly. Photo by Henry Tilima James Lombie.

Summer in Sierra Leone means torrential rain. July and August are the wettest months in this, one of the wettest countries in the world. Streets flood, hills collapse into mudslides and life in general does not go according to plan. Just ask Geneva Magsino (CWR ’19), who graduated this May with a degree in international studies, and Hannah Clarke, a pre-med student and French major who will soon begin her third year at CWRU. The pair spent last summer in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, carrying out a public health project.

“People stop their lives when it rains,” Clarke says. On days when the downpour was heaviest, she and Magsino could not travel the steep roads to the girls’ school where their project was based.

For these two students, however, the rain was just one in a long series of lessons on flexibility. They had gone to Sierra Leone to teach underprivileged girls about menstruation, sex and their rights as women. They ran a two-month workshop through the local chapter of Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation program.

In Sierra Leone, as in many parts of Africa, parents and children do not typically discuss intimate matters like menstruation and sex. “It’s just taboo. You’re not supposed to talk about it,” says Yasmine Ibrahim, founding director of Girl Up Vine Club Sierra Leone. “But we can’t not talk about it when we have high rates of teen pregnancy and kids are getting married at the age of 14.” Clarke and Magsino’s workshop was one way to start that conversation.

The participants, all members of Girl Up, were between 14 and 17 years of age. Through the organization, they received free menstrual products. But some still harbored misconceptions. “They’d ask, ‘Well, if you put a tampon in, how do you pee?’” Clarke says. Many feared they’d lose their virginity if they used a tampon or menstrual cup. Others wondered what abdominal pain during menstruation meant. Was something wrong?

The workshop included weekly discussions on everything from hygiene, sex and sexually transmitted infections to female genital mutilation and self-defense. Clarke remembers striving to keep the tone conversational and the dialogue open. Each session began with a discussion of the news of the day—a standard Girl Up activity that encourages participants to follow important current events. Clarke also orchestrated “question tosses” during every session to engage the girls and create a lively mood. “I had this little spray perfume bottle, so I’d just throw it at random, and whoever caught it would have to answer a question,” Clarke says. “Like, ‘How many months is a woman pregnant for?’”

Clarke did much of the teaching, while Magsino largely worked behind the scenes: budgeting, preparing presentations, designing brochures. “We definitely complement each other,” Clarke says. “I’m like, ‘Let’s do this! Let’s take risks!’ And Geneva is really calm.”

Hearing her friend describe her, Magsino laughs. “I also don’t know what I’d do without Hannah,” she says. “I get really scared speaking in public, so it’s nice to know Hannah can come in if I get stuck.” From their account, one would think Clarke and Magsino had been preparing for months—as indeed they had. But up until days before their flight, they’d planned on traveling to an entirely different country. Periods for Peace Magsino and Clarke both grew up attuned to a world outside the United States. Clarke regularly visits family in the Bahamas, where her mother was raised. Magsino was born in the Philippines and lived there until she was 9 years old. By the time they enrolled at Case Western Reserve, both had decided to focus on global health.

Clarke and Magsino leading a workshop

During one of their sessions in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, Clarke and Magsino handed out menstrual pads supplied by Girl Up, a global organization dedicated to gender equality. Photo by Yasmine Ibrahim.

In 2015, as a first-year student, Magsino became passionate about issues related to sexual health and hygiene. She was irritated to discover that campus restrooms had no menstrual products—a situation she blamed on the stigma surrounding menstruation. At the time, the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women and its Women in Science and Engineering Roundtable (WISER) were distributing free menstrual products at some campus locations, and these organizations were among Magsino’s allies when she co-founded the Menstrual Product and Sexual Health Task Force to press for change. In response to the task force’s activism, the university began providing free tampons and pads in campus restrooms in 2017.

Encouraged by her success, Magsino immersed herself in research. She learned that in some parts of the world, young women suffer infection and miss school because they do not have access to menstrual products. And because the subject of menstruation and female sexuality is often taboo, girls sometimes lack even a basic understanding of their own anatomy and needs. Here was injustice on a different scale. Undaunted, Magsino developed a plan for a summer program providing menstrual products and sexual health and hygiene education to girls in southwestern Cameroon, where such services are sorely lacking. The area is subject to destabilizing socio-political unrest, and it isn’t far from the stomping grounds of Boko Haram, the militant organization infamous for abducting young women.

Magsino began contacting potential organizational partners, including a group in Cameroon and an international nonprofit, Days for Girls. She decided to seek funding for her plan from Projects for Peace, an initiative of the Davis United World College Scholars Program. (The university had become affiliated with the program in 2017, making CWRU students eligible for grants.) Next, she recruited four other undergraduates who shared her interest in global public health. Clarke was one of those students. She had been involved with advocacy organizations promoting gender equality since high school, so the project was a natural fit.

The group ultimately secured funding from two sources: $10,000 from Projects for Peace, and $5,000 from Case Western Reserve’s Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. In a nod to their principal funder, they dubbed their project Periods for Peace.

“All the projects we get are amazing, but what elevated this project for us was its collaborative nature,” says Amanda McCarthy, assistant dean of undergraduate studies, who helps coordinate the on-campus selection of Projects for Peace nominees. “We really appreciated that these students were savvy enough to know that they needed to work collaboratively with different agencies and partners, that they couldn’t just swoop in and do it on their own.”

Workshop in the Northern Province

During a workshop in a northern village called Gbinle, Clarke and Magsino decided to take the girls outside instead of spending all day in a classroom. “We played games, sang songs and shared personal stories in a circle, both sitting and standing,” Magsino says. Photo by Geneva Magsino.

Magsino’s group also enlisted the help of Gilbert Doho, associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. A specialist in French and Francophone studies, Doho is a native of Cameroon. Like McCarthy, he was deeply impressed with the group’s proposal, which recognized gender inequality as a root cause of conflict. (The terrorist acts of Boko Haram, for example, are motivated in part by a belief that girls should not receive an education.) The students’ approach to peace, Doho says, “was really original. And their maturity and sense of preparedness made me admire them.”

Yet as the students learned, you can’t prepare for everything. The first wrinkle was that the group began to dwindle. One student decided to do an internship at MIT instead. Another was headed to the Peace Corps midsummer and decided to spend the weeks beforehand with family. The parents of a third decided the trip was too dangerous. By late May, only Magsino and Clarke remained. The pair was to depart the first week in June. As soon as finals ended, Clarke drove six hours to the Cameroonian embassy in Washington, D.C. “We needed our visas, and we were running out of time,” Clarke says. “The embassy would never answer my calls.”Visas in hand, they’d be on their way.

Or so they thought.

Five days before their flight, Magsino and Clarke learned that violence had spiked in southwestern Cameroon. Kidnappings and killings were on the rise, spurred by tensions between Anglophone separatists and the Francophone government. Doho, who was visiting the region to assess its safety, recommended they cancel their trip.

And with that, months of preparation seemed to go up in smoke. “There were moments when we felt the project would not work,” Magsino says.

But there was too much at stake for the pair to give up. The project was part of Magsino’s capstone research—a requirement for her graduation in May 2019. And Clarke had traveled abroad on a service trip every summer since her first year of high school. “It’s like clockwork,” Clarke explains. “So I said, ‘No, this is not going to stop us.’”

Magsino and Clarke called everyone they knew in sub-Saharan Africa. They reached out to organizations in Senegal, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda, seeking a new partner for their effort. Within days, they found a likely prospect: Through a friend, they connected with the Girl Up chapter in Freetown and were assured that the services they could provide were needed there.

This time, it was Magsino’s turn to make the long drive to Washington, D.C., for last-minute visas. “This embassy wouldn’t return our calls either!” she says. Incredibly, by mid-June, she and Clarke were on a plane to Sierra Leone. They’d been gearing up for their stay in Cameroon for months: getting to know local contacts over Skype, planning curriculum for a large group of girls, gathering advice from Doho. And now they were off to a different country to work with a much smaller group of girls. It was as if they’d enrolled in an impromptu summer course, Flying By the Seat of Your Pants 101. “We didn’t even know where we were staying until right before we were boarding the plane,” Magsino says.

Lessons to Build On

The students initially lived in Aberdeen, an upscale expatriate community in Freetown, but quickly realized it wasn’t for them. “That first week, we didn’t meet anyone who was Sierra Leonean except for those who were serving us, which we felt very awkward about,” Magsino says. So they moved to an apartment in a different neighborhood, one where they could watch World Cup soccer at the tailor shop across the street and mingle with locals at the grocery store. “We had a much more organic experience of the country there,” Clarke says.

Clarke, Magsino and facilitators

Clarke and Magsino trained some of their teenage students in Freetown as workshop facilitators. Then they all traveled to Sierra Leone’s Northern Province to educate local girls about women’s health. One of their partner sites was a church in the village of Makeni. From left: Clarke, Gladis Ansumana, Alimatu Idella, Yasmine Ibrahim (director of the Freetown chapter of the Girl Up program), Magsino and Mariama S. Jalloh. Photo courtesy of Geneva Magsino.

Magsino and Clarke were immediately impressed by the young women they taught in Freetown. “When I was that age, I did not have that kind of confidence,” Magsino says. “They just seemed very sure of themselves.”

Ibrahim, Girl Up Vine Club’s director, grew up in the United States, and she says the Freetown girls were excited to interact with two more foreigners. For someone in her role, she adds, “It was great to have like-minded people to work with.” Ibrahim typically recruits Sierra Leonean college students to help with the club, but because of cultural taboos, she has to train them intensively to discuss topics like menstruation.

Hoping that their students could help break such taboos, Magsino and Clarke taught some of them to lead their own workshops. Then, late in the summer, the whole group brought the project to Sierra Leone’s Northern Province, a rural area where it was necessary to make some adjustments to the curriculum. Some of the young women in the province were illiterate, while others had had only a little schooling. Access to sanitary products was limited; most of the girls used cloth instead. “We had to tell them if you do use cloth, make sure you leave it out to dry in the sun to kill some of the bacteria and avoid infection,” Clarke says.

The trip “upcountry” was a chance for Magsino and Clarke to bond with the Freetown girls. They cooked couscous together and talked about boys. They stayed up till late at night, when it is cheaper to make calls in Sierra Leone, dialing up friends and giggling and passing the phone around. “It was really nice to hang out with them as friends and not ‘We’re here to teach you,’” Magsino says.

Clarke says the emotional ties they built also served a purpose. “I am pretty extroverted,” she says, “but now I see why it’s important to form deeper connections with people when you’re trying to get something done.”

Magsino says that her time in Sierra Leone helped her lighten up. “I really like organization and structure and don’t go with the flow a lot,” she says. “This experience taught me that it’s okay if not everything works out the way you want it to.”     

The students have sought out chances to build on the lessons they learned in Sierra Leone. This spring, they both studied abroad in Senegal and brought Periods for Peace to a bilingual school there. In December, they’ve arranged to deliver the program again in Togo. Clarke hopes to pursue research opportunities in global health in summer 2019, and Magsino is looking for a post-graduation job involving sexual and reproductive health, preferably on a global level. But neither is willing to leave Periods for Peace behind. In fact, the pair is applying for nonprofit status.

“We went through a lot doing this project, and we were so flexible. I am like, ‘Wow, go us!’” Clarke says. “I can see us traveling the world doing this.”

Andrea Appleton is a freelance writer in Baltimore.


Page last modified: May 17, 2019