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Stepping Out of Silence to Become a Gender Champion

Alena Sherman's picture

Written by YouthPower2: Learning and Evaluation

Candice leads a workshop on menstruation and Qrate. photo courtesy of C. Chirwa.

In a world where menstrual health is still shrouded in stigma and taboo, Candice Chirwa stands as a beacon of empowerment and change. Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa, Candice's journey from a young girl grappling with the shame of having her period to a passionate menstrual health activist and Community of Practice (CoP) champion since 2022 is nothing short of inspiring. Candice shared insights into her advocacy work, career highlights, and the transformative power of education in breaking menstrual taboos.

Candice’s introduction to menstrual health activism came at a young age, marked by her own experience of shame and silence surrounding her first period at the age of 10. “I think there is a major element of conditioning, of silencing and shaming that occurs when a girl has a period for the first time, whether it’s unintentional or intentional. The girl child has to remain quiet for a very long time, she cannot speak openly about her experiences, and I carried that shame until I was 21,” Candice says. However, it was her exposure to conversations around sexual and reproductive health during her university years that sparked her interest in challenging these taboos.

 “When I started my mainstream activist career, I was inspired by an American activist. Her name is Nadya Okamoto. She has an entity called, Period Movement. She's just known as this period fairy now, but I was inspired by the work that she was doing at the time she was building up a movement, and I think that also played a large role in inspiring me to say if this is possible, then it can be possible for me, too.”

As Candice learned more about the subject, she was alarmed by the pervasive impact of period poverty and the myriad cultural taboos associated with menstruation, particularly in African communities. Determined to effect change, she embarked on a journey that led her to work as a junior consultant at the United Nations Population Fund and eventually pursue a master's degree in menstrual health. Armed with knowledge and passion, she co-founded Qrate, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing period poverty and destigmatizing menstruation. Qrate has served more than 10,000 individuals, fostered a more positive perception of periods, and advocated for access to menstrual products and education.

Candice’s relationship with YouthPower2: Learning and Evaluation (YP2LE) started via social media. “I was following and keeping up with the events and then when I saw the job opportunity, I said, ‘OK, let me try out and contribute my skills to the Gender CoP,” says Candice. Her involvement as a CoP champion for gender and youth further amplifies her commitment to menstrual health advocacy. CoP Champions complete tasks such as participating in at least monthly cohort meetings to support learning and planning within and across CoPs. They are also charged with reviewing and preparing meeting materials, notes, and coordinating with the YP2LE team, as needed, to share information network-wide and facilitate pollination across network groups.  Candice has spearheaded initiatives ranging from webinars to spotlight features, creating spaces for dialogue and learning within the community. Her role as a champion has not only expanded her learning but has also provided a platform to advocate for gender equality and youth empowerment.

One of the highlights of Candice's career was the opportunity to engage with prominent figures such as paramount chief of the Dedza District in the central region of Malawi, Theresa Kachindamoto, who played a pivotal role in passing and upholding a law that forbids marriage before the age of 18 in the country. Additionally, Candice's role in developing innovative projects like the menstrual health podcast and newsletter reflects her commitment to exploring new avenues for education and awareness. Despite her achievements, Candice remains acutely aware of the challenges that persist, particularly regarding menstrual taboos and stereotypes. From myths about early menstruation to harmful cultural practices like menstrual huts, Candice recognizes the urgent need for comprehensive education and advocacy. Through her work, she strives to strengthen the agency of young girls and women to embrace their periods with pride and confidence, challenging societal norms and fostering a community of support and understanding.

By breaking the silence, challenging taboos, and advocating for access to education and resources, Candice exemplifies the young changemaker mindset and serves as a testament to the transformative power of advocacy. “It's all about building a community and sharing your experiences. If there's something that is not normal with your period, you can seek comfort and refuge in a community that can empower you to get the necessary help that you need…. You should never feel like you need to hide your period.” As Candice aptly puts it, "Period."