In El Salvador, girls find power in talking about their periods

In El Salvador, girls find power in talking about their periods

On her last day of high school in the foothills of El Salvador’s Chalatenango mountains, one of 17-year-old Xochitl’s male classmates asked her to reach for something from his rucksack.

As she was rummaging in the school bag, she noticed a sanitary pad inside.

“Why are you carrying pads?,” she asked him. In this rural area, menstruation was traditionally a taboo topic and if it was brought up by any of the boys in her school it would usually be in the context of teasing or bullying. “Just in case of an accident or if one of you may need it,” he replied. She was surprised.

Her friend had decided to start carrying pads after taking part in The Power of Red Butterflies, an educational programme run by Plan International that lets girls - and boys - learn about the menstrual process and issues around it, including sexual health and consent. Now Xochitl could see the programme had made an impact, even on her male classmates. “I was super happy,” she says.

After graduating from the programme, Xochitl became a Red Butterfly - someone who knows about menstrual health and who’s qualified to share her knowledge with others in her family and community.  “[Menstruation] is something that women, men, boys, girls have to know. The more information we are given, the more we can help each other so we don’t suffer bullying and have so many troubles,” Xochitl says.

17-year-old Xochitl outside her home in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña)
17-year-old Xochitl outside her home in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña)

According to Yamila Ábrego, the national health advisor at Plan International, the aim of the project is to help girls and teenagers experience menstruation and adolescence as something positive, something healthy, without bullying or violence. “Sure of themselves,” she says.

Despite a massive security campaign launched by the government last year, El Salvador has been infamous for its warring gangs, violence and a macho culture that often views women only as child-bearers and mothers.

Menstruation has traditionally been seen as a subject that only concerns women, that is dirty or even a sickness during which girls and women should hide away. Myths and taboos make it hard for girls to talk about their periods either at home or at school. Some misconceptions include the need to restrict eating during a period and to stop all activities. “Not going to school due to the simple fact of having your period,” is the practice Ábrego laments the most.

The programme aims to dispel these myths in an environment where girls and boys are encouraged to be open about their fears and feelings. “We learned to take care of ourselves and to show more sisterhood among ourselves, because we learned that if someone has problems, if a woman has problems with her menstruation, we have to be there,” says Xochitl.

Twenty-year-old Damaris has also been through the programme. Not talking about the subject was damaging to her and her friends, she says. “We spent so much time immersed in a culture in which talking about all of these themes is prohibited.” There were unwritten rules and conventions that girls took on board without question. “Once, my grandmother told me not to go to church when I have my period, because that would be a sin. She actually told me that,” Xochitl says.

Girls attend The Power of Red Butterflies Project, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)
Girls attend The Power of Red Butterflies Project, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Knowledge is power

Since the programme was established, in 2019, 325 adolescents and 75 families from 17 different communities around El Salvador have completed the three-month Red Butterflies course. (The word butterfly was chosen as a symbol of strength and freedom and the word red symbolic of the menstrual cycle).

In a community health centre on the main road that connects El Salvador with Honduras, 11 girls aged 17 to 20 find the space to talk about their needs and doubts.

“Let’s start sharing something we brought to this session,” Yamila Ábrego says on a warm Monday morning. “It can be a song, a poem, something to share.”

Dora, Esmeralda, Rosemarie, Malanie, Neisily, Heydi, Haizel, Verónica, Damaris, Karla and  Xochitl are attending the three-hour workshop just before the school holidays. “I’m bringing happiness,” one of the girls says. “I’m bringing positivity to all of you,” says another.

Many of them have known each other since they were adolescents and have taken part in other Plan International programmes. “I have known them for years, four or five years -  each workshop helps us more and more,” Xochitl says.

The girls learn that they don’t need to hide or to feel ashamed every time they have their period. “I spent a year hiding it,” Neisily admits during the session. When she got her first period, she was afraid to talk about it with her family. Other girls have had the same experience.  “My sister cried when she had it for the first time,” Xochitl says. She tried to ignore it which only added to the anxiety. The workshops allow the girls to talk about menstrual health as well as pads, tampons, menstrual cups and, importantly, sexual and reproductive rights.

For most of them, this is the first time they have ever had the chance to learn and speak about their bodies and how to respect them. “Not knowing about ourselves doesn’t give us any power -  it keeps us in darkness,” Damaris says. “Being allowed to know us gives us the chance to make decisions for ourselves.”

Her mother, Rosa, listens to her daughter with pride, knowing Damaris now has the knowledge she needs. “What they have learned makes them feel completed. They know how to deal with situations and to share this information with some other girls,” Rosa explains.

Yamila Ábrego of Plan International (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)
Yamila Ábrego of Plan International (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

If we say no, it’s no

Beyond explaining how the menstrual cycle works the programme can help girls to “build their life,” Ábrego says. “If they are informed and have this information at the right time, they can say when they want to have a child, or not.” Xochitl agrees: “We didn’t realise that we had sexual and reproductive rights, that we don’t have to be mothers or fathers by force or carelessness.”

The Red Butterflies project also includes boys and young men to demystify menstruation and educate them on issues of reproductive rights and sexual consent.

Between 2015 and 2020 there were 105,930 cases of child and teenage pregnancy in El Salvador, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Of that total, 5,104 pregnancies were among girls as young as 10 to 14. Under Salvadorean law, any pregnancy under the age of 15 means it has resulted from rape.

That’s why, says Ábrego, that a programme like this is crucial to reinforce this message “not to naturalise pregnancies in girls and teens”, but to call it out as sexual violence. This is a cultural shift in a country where the justice system has often failed to punish perpetrators of violence against girls and women, due to fears of reporting such crimes, lack of knowledge of how to go about it or low priority given by prosecutors.

The programme empowers them to be assertive, according to Xochitl. “That if we say no, it’s no.That we can decide for ourselves, for our body or for our own emotional or psychological state.” The girls understand they have the right to say “No, stop!” she says.

“I feel happy because I know that from these workshops we can change our way of thinking and we can change our way of seeing the future,” she adds.

Dora and Esmeralda want to be psychologists. Others, like Haizel, Melanie and Damaris hope to become doctors. Neisily and Xochitl want to start technical careers, Karla would like to train as a maths teacher, Rosemarie as a criminologist and Heydi wants to be a forensic scientist.

“This group of girls gives me confidence and security,” Damaris says. She’s sure that among this group are the decision-makers of the future.” It may sound like a theme that can’t have so much impact, but this is where we see that knowledge is power,” adds Damaris, whose own ambition is to become a neurosurgeon.

Damaris, 20,  takes a selfie with other girls at  a Red Butterflies session,  in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)
Damaris, 20, takes a selfie with other girls at a Red Butterflies session, in Chalatenango, El Salvador (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)

Chaletenango, like the whole of El Salvador, is still reeling from Tropical Storm Julia that swept across Central America in October. The Power of Red Butterflies also includes a resilience element, which prepares young people to cope in emergencies when access to privacy and sanitation facilities may be limited.

“In El Salvador, many girls stop going to school (during their period) due to lack of supplies, inadequate hygiene facilities, and also due myths and prejudices. This just increases in times of emergencies,” Carlos Tejada, national coordinator of a flood resilience project. “That’s why we took this initiative to help manage menstrual hygiene. The programme helped to distribute 3,045 menstrual hygiene kits - which include sanitary pads, a menstrual calendar, a warm compress, hand sanitizer, a flashlight and underwear - during the Covid pandemic and 144 kits in the wake of Storm Julia.

Xochitl helps her family with the chickens (Victor Peña/ Evening Standard)
Xochitl helps her family with the chickens (Victor Peña/ Evening Standard)

For Xochitl, the Red Butterflies training has given her not only practical information but also new aspirations for her future.

Her ambition is to become an electrician and although the job is seen as something only a man can do, she’s planning to start her studies this year with the support of her mother. “She supports me and tells me  it’s good to go beyond my limits,” she says. While Xochit waits for her course at technical school to start, she’s helping her parents on their small chicken farm.

Her mother Eloísa says the Red Butterflies project has given Xochitl the self-belief to pursue a male-dominated career. “This [The Power of Red Butterflies] has helped her to be more sure of what she wants to do in her life,” she says.

Xochitl rides her bike (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)
Xochitl rides her bike (Victor Peña/Evening Standard)