Class of 2018
These enthusiastic greetings solidify Tuesday as my favourite day of week. As I enter the classroom, several of the girls come running to give me a hug, squealing my name in excitement. It’s my weekly afternoon at Les Scientistes, a program designed to encourage young girls from low-income communities to discover science.
The setting is both inviting and inspiring: the bright yellow walls are adorned with posters detailing different kinds of flora and fauna while a blackboard in the corner highlights important inventions and their female pioneers. I see miniature models, one of the human body with removable organs, and a DNA double helix overhangs the door frames, hand-made from coloured Styrofoam peanuts. And then there are the bookshelves, lined with title after title, ranging from how hydroelectricity works to what stars are made of. On Tuesday afternoons we work on their experiments for the upcoming science fair, encouraging them to design their own projects based on a question that interests them, consulting the abundant resources made available in this dynamic space.
I spend a lot of my time with one particular girl, Michele*. I took special note of her the first day: she’s rowdy and excitable, quick to distract the other girls and very tricky to keep on task. On one particular afternoon, she’s not her usual boisterous self. She’s not running around stealing the other girls’ granola bars, or persuading me to stand on my chair and sing opera with her. Her affect is dull and she’s disengaged. After a bit of careful questioning she says she’s not feeling well. I dig a bit deeper. Mentally? Physically, where? Stomach pain? She points just below her belly button. How long? And it’s often, how often? About a week, every month or s—ohhh…
I can tell how uncomfortable she is. The group comedian, the same girl who loves being the centre of attention, is embarrassed about her period. This I understand—while there are many things I don’t share with Michele, including my socioeconomic status, my white skin, my higher education—in a society that simultaneously oversexualizes yet stigmatizes the female body, body shame is something I know intimately. I think about how to best approach this with her. I want her to be knowledgeable about her menstrual cycle; I want her to talk about it and ask questions; I want her to be comfortable with her body, and, ambitiously, even in awe of herself, of the awesome biological being that she is—and eventually, to challenge the problematic societal messages that ever made her feel otherwise. Well, what better setting to have this conversation than at Les Scientistes?
At first she’s reluctant but when she realizes how comfortable I am and how open about my own experience, she relaxes. I see the burning curiosity in her that I had abated as a budding tween with night-time reading of the What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls. She gets excited when I explain how the pain she’s feeling is cramping from the very same uterus that we’ve been talking about for the past week in relation to her science fair project on the stages of pregnancy. I can almost see the neural connections being made through the incredulity in her eyes. She even asks me about her vaginal discharge, wanting to know what ‘normal’ should look and smell like. Most of her usual vigour has returned now; she wants to know if anyone has ever had purple or neon green discharge, and if someone’s uterus can just, like, fall out? A small crowd of girls starts to form, and before I know it, I’m convening a mini session on puberty, gender and sexuality with an enraptured audience.
There are many repercussions for inadequate education about healthy sexuality for people of all genders and ages, including perpetuating fear and stigma that prevent people from seeking healthcare for everything from HIV to gynaecological cancers (1). Additional barriers exist for individuals with intersecting identities, especially in regards to race, culture, ability, class, gender identity and sexual orientation. Trans communities in particular face enormous barriers in accessing both reproductive care and healthcare more generally (2).
I feel proud of the work Michele is doing, but I continue to worry and wonder about her future. She’s evidently bright, but if she doesn’t succeed in the mainstream schooling system, will she be able to access job opportunities where she’ll make a living wage (3)? If she doesn’t have anyone in her life who can she talk to about her period, who will she talk to about relationships? About her own sexuality and giving/obtaining consent? Who will help her understand when someone’s ‘love’ is really abuse?
What gives me hope though, week after week, is Michele’s ongoing presence at Les Scientistes. I know that an afterschool program cannot eradicate all the barriers these girls face, nor definitively address the deeply troubling inequalities in our society—but encouraging them to stay in school, enabling the exploration of careers in traditionally male-dominated spheres, connecting them with caring female mentors to help them think beyond rigid gender norms and binaries, teaching them that their ideas matter, helping them become active participants rather than passive recipients, and allowing a safe space for them to talk about anything from stardust to sexuality—well, in terms of addressing the upstream social determinants of health, I think it is a pretty good place to start.
*Name and identifying features have been changed.
- Women with gynaecological illnesses often present after months of symptoms because of their reluctance to seek out medical attention. A recent survey from a women’s cancer foundation in the UK found that half of young women surveyed (aged 16-25) “couldn't locate the vagina on a medical diagram and 65% found it difficult to use the word vagina”; further investigation found that one in five women do not report their gynaecological symptoms because of a perceived link between gynaecological cancers and sexual promiscuity (https://www.eveappeal.org.uk/news-info/blog/the-vagina-dialogues/).
- For more information about discrimination and other challenges faced by trans communities in accessing healthcare, check out the Trans PULSE project: http://transpulseproject.ca/
- A wage sufficient to pay for the basic necessities of life. For further details: http://www.livingwagecanada.ca/.