Que bola contigo? This is the slang phrase I learned in Cuba recently that means "Whats's up?" It was taught to me by the teenagers that I got to meet and talk with about youth programming, and specifically, how they experience puberty and menstruation in Cuba. The problem of the ‘tampon tax’ has been in the news recently, as has the softening of the Cuba/American relationship that allows more travel and exchange between the 2 countries. Well, the tampon tax is not an issue in Cuba, because tampons are essentially non-existent there! Although Mariela Castro Espin, the daughter of President Raul Castro, is the director of the well respected Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) and sex education has been mandatory since the 1960s, Cuba sorely lacks in supplies to support menstruation or puberty. Our goal as part of this trip to Cuba was to find out more about ways we can assist in youth programming with the Cubans, and introduce the girls to new options for use during menstruation and puberty. As of September, Be Girl panties and more menstrual education have found their way to Cuba!
Cuban people receive a specific allotment of the required 'items of daily living' each month. This includes things such as rice, sugar, meat, menstrual pads, etc. For menstrual supplies, girls/women get a ‘ration’ of 10 pads/month in Cuba, regardless of need. As we discussed issues about periods with a group of teen girls, including their 50+ year group leader in Cuba, the only tampon they had ever seen was in the movies! Well, as luck would have it, one of us ‘Americanas’ had brought tampons ‘just in case’ during the trip, and we brought those out to show them, and they were fascinated, especially with the idea that we have ample supplies of tampons in our country. (By the way, if you want to approach the quickly-changing Cuban economy at an advantage, start a tampon import business. On a lesser scale, definitely pack this in your suitcase for the next trip to Cuba, as you will likely be able to exchange them as currency with women).
The day we had our session with the girls, we were lucky to have a corner (with windows) inside the Sanctuary of the Presbyterian church, out of earshot of the mens’ and seniors’ groups that were also doing their own programming that day. Great to have windows for the breeze, as there is no A/C in the church in Cuba. As the girls listened and asked questions, I had the unique opportunity to observe them, observing us. Just like girls anywhere else in the world, they had the same concerns and questions about their body, but also about our experience of being American females. The laughed at the same punchlines in my talk, and my broken Spanish. They thought it was hilarious to think of female movie stars and female world leaders getting their periods. They were eager to hear more about America, and how American girls deal with their periods. They taught me that in Cuba, 'Frutabomba' means 'papaya', because to say 'papaya' means vagina. How could I have known? Menstruation is easily discussed, as is sexuality and birth control, in this area of Cuba. Actually, you would be hard–pressed to find something that these Cubans felt embarrassment about in discussing about sexuality, as they seemed familiar & comfortable with these topics being discussed in the open; maybe because of the mandatory sex education in the school?
There were 10 girls, and one group leader, from the church that came to our session on menstruation and Be Girl panties. With my Spanish sister-in-law, Rosa, as translator extraordinaire, it was easy to move back and forth between information, questions, and demonstrations. We discussed normal growth and development, and the girls gave me some examples of ways they deal with growing up. We discussed how they are able to purchase bras, how much they cost, how to fit them, and how to fix them – which was a new one for me. …..Having to rig your bra becomes important when buying a new one is not an option. We discussed the scarcity of disposable shaving razors in Cuba – a real luxury- and how they learn to shave with straight razors. (While we were there, one of the women who sang in the choir performance for us almost did not make it to the concert because she cut herself so deeply on a vein with a straight razor while shaving to get ready for the concert (she showed up with a pressure dressing and a leg wrapped with gauze.)
When we got to the part of discussing pads and tampons, and showing them the Be Girl panties, the girls were delighted with the idea of using the Be Girl panties! As we demonstrated how the Be Girl panties were waterproof to protect their clothes, but were absorbent with the blue cloths tucked in the mesh pouch, they seemed really excited about the idea of having a reusable resource for when they had their periods! They thought they looked comfortable, and so cute, and loved the colors (although we did have a request for some light colored ones, with beige cloths, that would not show up underneath their white clothes)! Each girl received 2 pairs of panties and instructions for use in Spanish. They also filled out a baseline survey for us about their current thoughts, attitudes, and experiences about having their periods - with the idea that we will follow up in 3-4 months with an endline survey to gauge their reaction to using the Be Girl panties. Afterwards, we had a participant in the seniors program approach us and inquire if we had similar panties in larger sizes for older women with incontinence issues, since that is also an unmet need. Additionally, one of the male administrators heard about our talk and the BeGirl panties, and wanted to know how to obtain more for the girls in his family!
Our time in Cuba was wonderful and eye-opening It was a delightful, faith-filled mission of fellowship, gathering information , and sharing in the tasks of program administration and organizational structuring. The Cuban people were hospitable, hard-working, and amazing in their abilities to find the necessary work-arounds for their current way of life. Although there is a real struggle in many ways to provide for yourself and your family, there was a sense of positive anticipation about the subtle economic changes that are occurring between our two countries. We are hopeful that this will continue to bring prosperity to this area, and provide for all things - including menstrual resources - that the people here need. We were delighted to bring Be Girl panties to Cuba, and look forward to the responses on the follow-up surveys! Chao pescáo! (slang for see you later!)
By Dr. Dawn Bingham, MD, MPH, FACOG