How Former Swimming Sensation Dr. Ratidzo Mutangadura is Empowering Girls and Encouraging Men to Join Conversations on Menstruation

Dr. Ratidzo Mutangadura grew up in a Christian, middle-class family in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she, along with her two sisters, were encouraged to excel in whatever they set out to do.

“My parents always emphasized hard work, dedication and perseverance,” Ratidzo told The Weight She Carries. “This is not to say everything always worked out, but they would always say, ‘Dust yourself off, you have to keep moving to succeed.”

Ratidzo, an avid swimmer since the age of six, employed all three qualities when she began to train to swim competitively. At eight, she joined the Mashonaland team (provincial), and by nine, made the Zimbabwe team. She went on to swim for the country until she was 17 – her backstroke earning her a record-equalling time of 31.84 seconds in the 50-metre race when she was just 14.

“It was a lot of hard work,” she said. “I had four to five hours of training a day to compete at that level, but it was all worth it.”

In the nine years that she swam competitively, Ratidzo amassed hundreds of medals and approximately 100 trophies. But even more valuable to her were the intangible gains.

“I learned so much besides the actual act of swimming and being in the pool,” she said. “I got to travel, met many new friends, and acquired skills that people don’t see on the surface – like understanding that you have to pick yourself up when things don’t go your way; and that sometimes you have to wipe those tears and keep pushing to be better.”

The discipline gained during those years would serve her well as she set her sights on becoming a doctor after high school – a dream she held dear for as long as she can remember.

“In terms of a career, I never thought about doing anything else,” she said.

One day, her sister – who was living in Malawi – called Ratidzo out of the blue and told her that the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences offered pre med.  She applied and was accepted into the five-year program.

During her time in school, Ratidzo met an 18-year-old mother of two who was expecting her third child.

“I asked her about maternity pads and what she was going to use to take care of herself after delivery since there would be a lot of bleeding. Her answer shocked me, and I thought, ‘There’s no way this is sanitary, nor is it safe.’

Alarmed, Ratidzo picked up the phone and called her mother, who told her that many young women in Zimbabwe also resort to using rags or other pieces of fabric because they do not have access to sanitary products.  

“It troubled me so much, I knew I had to do something about it,” she said.

That weekend, Ratidzo called her good friend Tafadzwa Saburi. The two had been friends since high school and often talked about finding ways to contribute to society. Tafadzwa jumped on board.  A few weeks later, Ratidzo met a young man named Tinashe Chikava, who gladly joined their mission.

“As a guy, he admittedly didn’t know much about menstruation, but was drawn to the cause,” she said. “Then Kudzai (Mtasa), another guy joined the team, along with Nyasha (Mvumi) and Rudo (Masendeke).”

The team brainstormed ways to empower the girlchild by teaching her how to make her own reusable sanitary wear and raising awareness in communities about the importance of menstrual hygiene and women’s reproductive health.

Since the newly minted Chengetai team was comprised of students, they were teeming with ideas but lacked funds to execute their plans. So, they decided to organize a fundraising event.

“We printed raffle sheets and sold them and were privileged to have the support of many people who donated gifts such as cakes, whiskey for whiskey hampers and chocolate for chocolate hampers. We raised a couple hundred dollars,” she said.

Shortly after, Chengetai planned their first outreach event and have continued to grow over the years. Most rewarding is the impact their efforts have had on the community.

“Our team has definitely expanded, which is very exciting for us to keep something that is borderline taboo, especially in our society, on the forefront and discussed by many people,” she said. “Because we are delivering a very sensitive, taboo topic every single day, we realized that we have to be context sensitive and recognize that the population we’re trying to appeal to might not be open to the message. So, we have to deliver it in a wise manner.”

Since we live in a patriarchal society, including men in discussions surrounding women’s health is paramount, Ratidzo added. Every man has a mother, wife, sister or daughter and should be involved in the fight to destigmatize menstruation.

“The truth is, it’s easy to blame men and say they don’t want to discuss this,” she said. “But the question is: are we inviting them to the table to talk about it? They’re told by their dads and grandfathers that this is not their story, this is a woman’s thing. So even if they want to approach it, they don’t know how to.”

The materials needed for the reusable pads Chengetai teaches girls to make include fleece, a towel, needle and thread and either a fastener or button. This pocket-friendly process of making pads and keeping them sterile is detailed in this YouTube video.

“You have a butterfly that makes the body of the pad, then toweling that makes the inner part that is removable, so you can separate it and wash it,” she said.

Ratidzo said one of the concerns with many commercial sanitary products supplied to Africa is that there are no regulations ensuring that pads are free of toxic chemicals that can lead to serious health issues for girls and young women, including infertility.

“You want four, not three layers of absorption,” Ratidzo stressed. “Blood provides a warm, moist environment and has nutrients that bacteria can survive in. So if these pads don’t have the necessary components in them to allow all of the blood to flow away from the body and stay locked in the pad, you are putting yourself at risk for genital tract infections.”

Last month, Chengetai held a family event at Lake Chivero. The day was filled with games, food and fun for everyone. Follow Chengatai on Facebook and YouTube or visit their website to learn about upcoming events and what you can do to empower girls and young women across the continent. 

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