Rose Mutale’s parents emigrated to the United States from Zambia, in southern Africa, when she was just a young girl. She stayed behind for several years, living with friends and extended family members. That’s when her period story came, and she experienced the humiliation, shame, and what Mutale calls “the pain of lack” known as period poverty – not having access to proper menstrual hygiene products. Now, at age 29, the first-generation student is graduating this summer with a BS in interdisciplinary studies from Southern and leads For Her Pride, a nonprofit organization “fighting to end period poverty and provide resources and access to educational opportunities through advocacy, service and education.”
“I knew there was a lot of poverty growing up,” Mutale says. “Then my parents left and I was in someone else’s home and I suddenly felt that feeling of helplessness. I didn’t want to ask anyone for period supplies. I was just happy to have food and shelter.”
Mutale is far from alone.
According to the Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization that addresses poverty and hunger, a staggering 500 million women globally experience period poverty, every month. Without the proper supplies, women are often ostracized from basic activities and unable to go to school or work. Mutale herself was unable to go to school or leave her home for a week because of her period.
“I would have to use toilet paper,” Mutale says. “I was trying to bring dignity to the process. There are ‘corner stores’ in Zambia but it comes down to food versus supplies. It’s a choice.”
The deficit can extend beyond sanitary products; it also can include basic hygiene items such as soap, shampoo, and toothbrushes.
“You can be middle class and still not have some basic supplies. That time between age 12 and 18 is so critical for self-development, and I wasn’t confident because I lacked deodorant.”
In 2011 Mutale moved to Shelton, Conn., and reunited with her family, but she could not stop thinking of the young girls in her home country. Not only were they missing four to five days of school a month because of period poverty, cost often prohibited them from moving beyond a rudimentary education. The upper primary school completion rate for a girl can be as low as 8 percent, in rural areas.
“When you look at education outcomes, in Zambia, free education is only until seventh grade and after that families don’t want to pay that for women,” she says. “But there’s value in educating women. Young children will emulate their mothers and it benefits everyone to have women who are educated.”
Despite her own battle with self-esteem stemming from adolescence, Mutale recognized the value in continuing her education. She enrolled first at Norwalk Community College, then transferred to Naugatuck Valley Community College, where she saw a flyer about interning at the State Capitol.
“I applied and knew nothing about policy or the government, especially as an immigrant,” she says, but she landed the internship and “that’s where I truly immersed myself in something other than just getting from point A to point B.”
She traveled back to Zambia when she could, doing independent outreach to orphanages and battered women’s shelters, bringing them food and supplies.
“Sometimes I didn’t have a lot to give except time, but it meant so much because the girls felt seen and that someone cared, and you realized that they are so disadvantaged,” she says. “It is all just what you’re born into. We are all the same!”
She continued to intern with the Connecticut General Assembly’s Commission on Women, Children and Seniors; it was then, as her confidence grew and she found her feet, that she decided her interest lay in public health and advocacy. Unable to shake the inequity of her childhood experiences and determined to act, in 2017 she founded For Her Pride, a nonprofit organization to fundraise and deliver educational opportunities and menstrual hygiene materials to girls in Zambia.
She also shadowed Southern alumna Karen Buckley, now director of Government Relations – Department of Public Health at the State of Connecticut, who was then a student, and in 2018, after interning full-time for U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal in Wasington, D.C., Mutale decided to enroll at the university herself.
While at Southern, Mutale worked 40 to 50 hours a week while pursuing her degree. Courses she took under Rosalyn Amenta, director of Women’s Programs, struck a deep nerve.
“It all just kind of came together,” she says. “This last year really defined what I want to do. In Professor Amenta’s class I was able to give my opinion on a lot of women’s issues, and I was able to have conversations that mattered to me. I felt heard and respected.”
Going forward, Mutale’s mission is to continue spreading that acknowledgment and respect with those who desperately need it. She hopes to return to Zambia full-time and work alongside her interdisciplinary team of For Her Pride, which includes her fiancée, Choongo.
“My team are supportive but execution is more difficult when I’m in the U.S. and I’d like to commit to this 100 percent,” she says. “I want to get to all nine provinces and we’ve only gotten to two. Ideally I’d like to have a warehouse for supplies. Sometimes we have to send supplies deep into the land, so the challenge is to even have proper transportation. From Lusaka, the capital, the worst parts are the ones deepest in the country where no one even goes to.”
Even in those pockets, Mutale hopes to shine a light.
“Mentorship and guidance are so needed,” she says. “It’s our responsibility if we have privilege to share that because it changes lives and communities. These girls have been told ‘You’re less than.’ If no one helped me, I don’t think I would have made it. That’s what drives me.”
From For Her Pride:
The Covid-19 crisis has been especially devasting to menstruators across the globe. It has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and issues, and period poverty is at the center of it all. Research from development and humanitarian organization plan international surveyed health professionals in 30 countries and 73% said restricted access to products and disrupted supply chains is a major issue. 68% pointed to restricted access to facilities to change, clean and dispose of period products. 58% said an increase in price of products exacerbated period poverty during the lockdown.