Natasha Sichula is working to erase a stigma

The topic of menstruation is considered taboo in some parts of the world
Natasha Sichula portrait
Natasha Sichula

Natasha Sichula considers the United States a land of opportunity. So when she was offered a scholarship to attend Edgewood College, she was excited at the prospect of how it could change her life and, in turn, how she could empower other young women. Nearly four years later, the college senior and pre-med student says she has discovered her passion through founding the nonprofit Her Empowerment Race Zone, or HERZ, which not only promotes menstrual health but also seeks to help the environment by producing reusable feminine hygiene products. She hopes it will help erase the stigma associated with “period poverty,” the inability to access or afford menstrual hygiene products.

Tell me about where you grew up.
I grew up in Mufulira, a farming and mining community in the north central part of Zambia. I lived there until I was 11. I liked school and I was the best student. I got a scholarship to attend Catholic school at Fatima Girl’s Boarding School in Ndola. I spent four years there and finished high school. Most of my family members didn’t go to college, and I knew that the only way I could escape poverty is through education.

HERZ volunteers in Mufulira, Zambia hold up examples of feminine hygiene products they’re distributing to other women in their country.

How did your upbringing shape you?
I was raised by my mother. I am the woman I am right now because I have a strong mother. She has devoted her life to public service and volunteering. My mother is a teacher. She gets up at 5 a.m. and walks for two hours to get to the village school where she teaches. Her passion is to shape the future of young boys and girls and change the narrative of girls whose culture romanticizes married life. She wants to make a big impact by teaching the younger generation to believe in themselves and empower them while they are still young. She showed me how to be a woman of substance, taught me the value of perseverance and set my path toward public service.

How did you get from Zambia to Madison, Wisconsin?
I graduated from high school in 2014. Two years later, the Dominican sisters at Edgewood College contacted my mother to ask if I would be interested in representing Zambia through a scholarship to attend Edgewood College. I had no idea where Madison, Wisconsin, was. But I knew there would be opportunities there. I was really honored and humbled that the principal of my former high school, who is a nun, would pick me to represent Zambia for such a prestigious scholarship. It has been an amazing experience.

HERZ and the Wisconsin chapter of Days for Girls International collaborated to make 406 reusable menstrual pads.

What was it that made you decide to start HERZ?
My organization is about empowering women, but it’s also more than that. It’s a movement that attempts to eradicate period poverty. It comes from my own personal experience. When I was in high school, I had an irregular period. It started after I went to boarding school. I went to the school nurse and she told me that changes in your environment or your diet can cause it. When I heard that, I was interested in how diet affects the menstrual cycle. I was also told about the stigma that comes with menstruation, and I also experienced it myself. It is so expensive to buy feminine hygiene products. There was one time at school when I didn’t have money to buy basic sanitary wear, so I had to use one of my stockings as a pad. I had to walk back to class without my socks. It negatively affected my self-esteem. When I came to America, the land of abundance, I started to think: How am I going to make a difference? I decided I wanted to find a solution to period poverty. In some parts of Zambia, a menstruating female is secluded from the rest of society for two to three days. I had friends who would miss their classes. And most of them opted to get married, as opposed to pursuing other opportunities. If I can help remove that stigma for other young women, then maybe that would clear an obstacle for them and they could reach another level in their education and economic situation.

As an international student from Zambia, what is your view of Madison?
The first time I learned about race is when I came to the USA. There were no stereotypes associated with me in Zambia in terms of the color of my skin. In Zambia, I identified myself based on my tribe. I had to come to Madison, Wisconsin, to learn that I am a black woman. It still puzzles me that when I fill out an application, I need to check a box to identify my race. I have to tell myself: “OK, I’m a black person.” There is a racial disparity in Madison. But overall, it’s a nice place.

Care packages of reusable cloth sanitary pads were given to girls in Zambia.

Have you talked about racial identity with African American women?
Yes, I have talked to African American women about racial identity. We have a sisterhood. I believe at the core we are one and the same. We might just have slight differences in our cultures. I have learned so much from my African American sisters and their perseverance and resilience.

Is there a difference in how people react to you when they find out you’re from Zambia?
When they see me, I think they think I’m African American. But when they find out I’m from another country, their perception of me will change. They hear my accent and they change. They are more curious. They are more interested in knowing about me. I have a host family and they are white. They have helped me learn about their culture as well.

Of all your accomplishments, which one are you most proud of?
I have to say it was being selected to attend the United Nations in New York and Switzerland and speak about menstrual health. There were students there from all over. Afterward, some girls from India told me, “You are our hero.” They said they rarely talk about menstruation, and it was nice to hear they felt empowered.

What do you plan to do after graduating from Edgewood College?
I want to become an obstetrician gynecologist. I want to take a leadership position in the health sector of my country. It will enable me to be a voice for women. I am so grateful to Edgewood and my community in Madison. This experience has opened so many doors.

Karen Lincoln Michel is president of Indian Country Today and former publisher and executive editor of Madison Magazine