With $10,000 and a passion for women’s rights, Shamim Ibrahim set out to change girls' lives in Kenya. 

Ibrahim, a junior at the University of Richmond, received the $10,000 in funding after being awarded a Projects for Peace grant in 2019. 

With the money, Ibrahim traveled for six weeks in her home country, Kenya, during the summer of 2019, spending approximately three hours each week at eight institutions in an effort to normalize menstruation and educate Kenyan girls on women’s health, Ibrahim said. The eight institutions were composed of all-girl schools and orphanages, she said.

During her time with girls in Kenya, Ibrahim distributed reusable menstrual products and promoted ongoing conversations and education about the biological process of menstruation and sexual health in general, Ibrahim said.

 Kamene Mang'oka, a first-year student at UR, accompanied Ibrahim during the duration of the project. 

“I played a supporting role wherever Shamim needed me and we worked well together,” Mang'oka said. 

Mang'oka and Ibrahim are both from Kenya, attended the same boarding school in Canada and now both attend UR, Mang'oka said. Ibrahim enlisted Mang'oka's help for the project while she was home in Kenya for the summer, waiting to start her first year at UR, Mang'oka said.  

“When I heard about this project, I knew I wanted to be a part of it because it’s a cause I think needs to be advanced in my country,” Mang'oka said.

Menstruation is a topic surrounded by shame and stigma in Kenya, Ibrahim said. There are not a lot of women who are comfortable speaking about it, she said. 

“These girls are terrified to talk about menstruation and sex,” Ibrahim said. “Because I am also Kenyan, I would speak in Swahili and joke around, to make them feel comfortable and see that I’m one of them to get them to open up.”

As the weeks progressed, Ibrahim and Mang'oka said, they saw the girls becoming more confident and comfortable in their own bodies.

“At the end of the six weeks, each school or orphanage made some kind of physical representation of what they had learned,” Ibrahim said. “One group made two posters. On one poster, they wrote the words they used to think represented women — things like timid, submissive and weak. On the other poster the girls wrote down words they now think represent women — like boss, empowered and strong.

"I was so proud of them.” 

The project also helped educate Kenyan boys, Ibrahim said.

“The boys are part of the problem and need to be informed about these topics, too," Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim and Mang'oka also visited an all-boy school in Kenya and educated them about consent, sex and mental health, attempting to show them that boys can be vulnerable and show emotions, Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim said her project could not have been completed without the help of other volunteers and donations. 

“There were so many people who donated their time and resources,” Ibrahim said. “I bought a number of period panties from a company called Thinx, but then they donated over 100 more to my cause. Other volunteers from Keune Foundation helped sew products and got some of their volunteers to bring menstrual products with them when they came to Kenya.” 

Ibrahim’s passion for educating girls about their bodies and de-stigmatizing menstrual health started almost five years before her project, while she was still in boarding school in Canada. 

“A professor [at her boarding school] took a group of us students to Kenya, to give back to the community by building schools, roads and bus stops," she said. "While I was there, I noticed a lot of the girls were missing at the school each day. When I asked why, other girls would respond, ‘Oh she can’t come today because she’s having her period.’ That blew my mind.” 

In 2017, Ibrahim was awarded a GoMakeaDifference [GoMAD] grant, which she used to start creating change around menstrual health in her country, she said. 

“GoMAD gave me $1,000 to distribute reusable sanitary pads for the girls, but I realized something that was missing was having the actual conversations," she said.

After spending the following summer in Kenya speaking and educating about menstrual health without funding, Ibrahim heard about the Projects for Peace grant from UR's Office of Scholars and Fellowships, she said. Ibrahim realized this was the opportunity she had been awaiting to make a large impact and began preparing her proposal, she said.

“My proposal stated that with the bigger budget, I would be able to go to more schools and orphanages than ever before,” Ibrahim said. “I also outlined how I would distribute reusable sanitary pads, period panties and menstrual cups and hold workshops.” 

Student grant proposals are submitted to the Office of Scholars and Fellowships and reviewed by a panel of UR faculty members and staff members, said Erica Hall, a former employee of UR's Office of Scholars and Fellowships and a review panelist on Ibrahim’s grant proposal. 

UR is a certified United World College Program Partner school, so it partners directly with Davis Projects for Peace, Hall said. 

The UR panel reviews all Projects for Peace proposals submitted by UR students and then selects and submits one winning proposal to Projects for Peace, Hall said. Because UR is a UWC Program Partner School, the chosen proposal is then guaranteed funding for the coming summer, she said.

In spring 2019, the panel picked Ibrahim’s project to be nominated for the grant.

“We liked Shamim’s project because it not only gave girls the tools and means needed to deal with menstruation but also empowered them,” Hall said. “It’s a huge problem that we’re fortunate we don’t have to deal with in this country, but for them it’s the reason a lot of girls can’t get an education.” 

Although the project positively progressed the way Kenyan girls view and understand their bodies, there is still a larger audience that needed to be reached, Ibrahim and Mang'oka said.

“The project opened my eyes to how long it takes to change culture,” Mang'oka said. “It’s still hard to talk about menstrual health and sex in Kenya and it’s going to take a lot more time and work to change cultural attitudes. But seeing the progress the girls made at the end of our time there was amazing.”  

Ibrahim said she had agreed that there was still a long way to go to achieve cultural change.

 “My work with this topic isn’t done,” Ibrahim said. 

Contact features writer Alex Maloney at alexandra.maloney@richmond.edu.