Riverbend freshman spends spring break combatting ‘period poverty’

by | Apr 5, 2024 | ALLFFP, Health & Wellness, Schools & Education

The days were long and very hot.

The hotel had electricity but no air conditioning. The mosquitoes were hungry. Toilet paper couldn’t be flushed and the plumbing worked sporadically. Bottled water was used for drinking and brushing teeth.

With limited access to fresh water, bathrooms, and safe food, the Shields family had packed ahead. They received their shots for typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria.  Even so, the trip was physically hard, and they suffered from rashes, infections, and stomach issues. 

It was Cora Shields’ first visit to Peru, and the Riverbend High freshman was there because she was outraged and appalled.

Women in countries like Peru, were being affected by an issue that many American women have never heard of.

Period poverty affects millions of women around the world who lack access to education, supplies and hygienic conditions. In some countries, it means girls and women drop out of school. It was shocking to Cora to learn that simply having a menstrual cycle could so dramatically affect the lives of women.

Cora began her journey with research, starting with a book called “The Double X Economy” by Linda Scott. “It talks a lot about the economic state of women in our world and how girls are forced out of things… and it mentioned some things about ‘period poverty’ that I never heard of,” she said. 

Being embarrassed by bleeding through their clothes or lacking sanitary supplies, young women in some countries stop attending school in their teen years. But another disturbing reason they drop out was that, in some countries, evidence of menstruation alerts predatory men to the fact that a girl is considered sexually available.  

Cora confided her concerns to her mom, Rachelle. “Mom, these girls are moms, and they’re just my age! How will they ever finish school or get a job? And these men that target them—they don’t care!”

In response, organizations all over the world have been trying to fight period poverty, but the results are mixed. Disposable supplies only help for a month or so and create more waste. Washable pads must be cleaned at community streams and wells and then hung to dry where others can see.  

Finding a way to help

Recently, Cora has been focused on earning the Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor in the organization. One step toward the award was completing her GirlTopia project, a Senior Journey that introduces Scouts to some of the challenges girls and women face around the world. Cora was asked to imagine how she can make the world a better place and improve the lives of girls.  

For the Shields family, that meant spending her spring break in Puerto Maldonado teaching girls and women about menstrual health with the nonprofit organization International Medical Relief.  

“When Cora learned that providing sustainable menstrual supplies keeps girls in school, it really touched her,” Rachelle said. “School is very important to Cora.”

Cora and Rachelle began looking at different companies that sell period panties, reusable, absorbent underwear that prevents leaks or needing to go to a bathroom to change a tampon or sanitary pad—helpful when clean facilities are hard to find. It also helps conceal the fact that a woman is menstruating.

Having found an issue about which she was passionate, Cora went to work raising money to purchase the underwear. She created a flyer and started sharing the information on social media platforms, ultimately raising over $2,000 in donations from family, friends, her Girl Scout troop, and her school. She wrote a pamphlet about menstrual hygiene in Spanish and developed a short program to demonstrate period underwear to people who had never heard of it.   

“I thought it was really cool that a lot of good people came forward, specifically a lot of women, to donate,” she said.   

Cora and her family found a medical mission trip to Peru with the nonprofit IMR. Cora’s father, Dr. Justin Shields, would also provide some health care during the trip, and Rachelle worked “crowd control.”  

“It was really a great fit for us because a lot of medical missions won’t let an entire family come. They were pretty supportive and also provided me with a translator for my program there.”  

It was the first time Shields had traveled internationally with a purpose other than sightseeing. On clinic days the family took a bus and/or boat for an hour to get to more remote parts of Peru in the Amazon rainforest. “Sometimes we had to take a tractor to get over more treacherous areas and into the camps where we did clinic. It was very hilly and muddy. Many of the roads weren’t really roads—they were just packed mud. Some of the bridges weren’t really bridges—they were planks of wood strewn over a drop. They would rumble and fall out of place when our cars went over them. Once we had to walk across a rickety rope bridge. There were several times when we felt like Indiana Jones,” Rachelle said.

Cora says that once the crowd relaxed, the girls and women asked questions about menstruation, and she found that they were eager to talk about it because they had never had the opportunity to discuss it.   

“It was a bit awkward at first, being a young American woman talking to these women, and then being worried that what I say isn’t being translated accurately and it’s somewhat taboo to discuss periods in general,” she said. “So, I was nervous at first.”  

The program director at IMR recently contacted the Shields to say they were so impressed with Cora’s project they will be using her as an example on future medical missions.   

“It was a good experience,” Cora said. “I got to cross the Amazon and one day I got to speak at an all-girls school with 80 students. They were all really happy and promised to stay in school.”  

Cora was so touched by the response she said she cried, “because it was all so beautiful.”   


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