The waiting room is alive with vibrant chatter as fast-paced Spanish is exchanged like a game of hot potato. Women and girls of all ages sit, stand, and pace with anticipation. A propaganda poster supporting Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega hangs on a white plaster wall. “Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria,” it reads (“Christianity, Socialism, Solidarity”). Health-related public service announcements denoting the importance of regular shots, safe sex, and proper childcare cover the remaining walls, doors, and windows. The white-coated doctor, a stocky 40-year-old man, appears from his office and calls the next patient.
From March 10-21 of this year I worked with two teachers to lead a group of 12 high school students a trip to Nicaragua. The goal of the trip was to learn about the history, culture, and politics of the country through a combination of community service, cultural immersion, and sightseeing. It was my third visit to a country I had fallen in love with freshman year, when I participated in a service trip to a rural village in the northeast part of the country. I was impressed by the cultural richness, spirit, and resiliency of the people occupying the hemisphere’s second poorest country (after Haiti) and I wanted to continue to learn, grow, and share my experiences with others.
While in the past I have traveled with my family, this year I was part of the school trip. In order to instill more lasting change on the communities we visited, we did our best to bring useful and sustainable donations.
Camions of Care founder Nadya Okamoto brought a suitcase filled to the brim 1,400 feminine hygiene pads to distribute at a local clinic we planned to visit as part of our community service. Although the Nicaraguan customs agents were slightly shocked by the contents of the suitcase, we delivered the donation to the Centro de Salud Alejandro Calero (Alejandro Calero Health Clinic) without incident.
The clinic was the only medical facility within an hour of many of the areas it served. Although it was not “surgery certified,” it boasted robust services for women, including pre and post-natal care, a child care facility, and a library. It also provided other basic services. Like all health care services in Nicaragua, individuals received care free-of-charge.
Once we arrived, the distribution process was simple. We were welcomed with a brief introductory hello and tour of the facilities from the lead doctor and were then told to split into teams of two to personally distribute the products to the women milling about the waiting room of the women’s clinic.
It was an uncomfortable process, with both my fellow students and the women receiving the products clearly uncomfortable. We handed pads to women of all ages, with some women sheepishly asking if they could have another pack for themselves, friends, or relatives. We were thanked with mumbled gratitude and bright smiles. Within minutes, we had distributed all of our pads, said our goodbyes, and were headed back to our bus.
Internationally, feminine hygiene and a woman’s period are taboo subjects. Camions of Care aims to manage and celebrate menstrual hygiene through advocacy, education, and service. Their efforts help start conversations and ensure that women have the support and materials they need to manage an inescapable part of life.
Although it has seen significant growth and economic improvement, Nicaragua is a country that continues to struggle with extreme poverty. Many children don’t have money for school uniforms, access to clean water, or opportunities for higher education. Many individuals are forced to travel oversees to find work and support their families.
As a result, any donation and economic support makes a difference. That said, as we left the clinic some of us questioned the long-term sustainability of our efforts. Yes, we had distributed packets of pads to women who needed them, but we wouldn’t be there to give them more when they ran out next month or the month after that.
Ultimately, we acknowledged that although the distribution of the pads was not a long-term initiative, we had made a meaningful difference in a different way. We had encouraged a conversation and openness about periods in a country where a patriarchal, “machismo” culture often forces women into silence and servility. We had also forged connections with another culture and enriched our perspective on the world around us.