We have many words for it; periods, monthlies, the red sea, the crimson wave, just to avoid this nerve – cutting uncomfortable word; menstruation. It is treated as a blighting curse, except when it relieves a woman from the worry of an unwanted pregnancy. One would assume that for such a modern society, this common natural occurrence among women and girls entering their adolescence would be easy on the tongue, but it’s often the contrary. A lot of embarrassment, awkwardness and shame still surround menstruation and it is still largely associated with uncleanliness. Although young girls are taught about their changing bodies, they are not taught to dispel the shame that comes with being on their periods and the discomfort that they experience due to the silence that is thrown to this issue. Even women can’t openly talk about it amongst themselves.
Most women still hide their sanitary products and get hot faced when pulling out the packages in public. Waking up with a stain on the bed or experiencing unfortunate leaks in public is enough to have any woman feeling ‘irresponsible’ and highly embarrassed. This comes with the prevalent attitude that has conditioned women to stigmatise their bodies from a very young age. A recent study in the US has revealed that the feminine hygiene market is worth 2 billion dollars, which makes one wonder why there are not enough campaigns that reinforce the normalisation of menstruation and make it a comfortable topic among women instead of a shameful private thing. Even the fact that sanitary pads are regarded as luxuries not essentials is problematic, especially for young girls on the low end of the economic spectrum.
Culturally, women were segregated when they bled, which carried the negative implication that they were unclean. Religiously, some Old Testament scriptures state that anyone who touches a woman on her period will be “unclean until evening”, which isolates women and depicts them as dirty. Some men use pre-menstrual stress as a comic punch line to invalidate women’s feelings during this time. These all add insult to injury as they highlight the shame women already struggle with. The discomfort that comes with menstruation such as cramps, heavy periods, mood swings worsen the disdain most women have for their monthlies and most suffer in silence. Despite our changing times, it appears the stigma still lingers mainly due to cultural and religious views.
Tshepo Moyo, who recently founded Higher Heights For GirlsÔÇöa local nonprofit organisation that aims to tackle issues affecting girls said, “We spend our whole girlhoods being taught it’s our little secret. How is a biological function a secret? It all starts with socialisation. We shame it because that’s what the society does too. I’m in my twenties but it is still something that makes me uncomfortable”.
“A lot of women are ashamed to tell their doctors to give them birth control pills which at times alleviate menstrual cramps and heavy bleeding. They fear the stigma that comes with asking for the pills. Some women have sex during their periods, and because they are ashamed to talk about it, you wonder if they are taking the necessary precautions during sex,” said Mbi.
Pads 4 School Girls Campaign is doing commendable work by raising funds to buy sanitary pads and donate them to junior schools around Botswana for underprivileged students who miss school due to their monthliesÔÇösomething that is highly necessary but is rarely done.
There’s an evident stigma that is attached to menstruation across cultures. Up to ten percent of women still get their first period without any prior knowledge of the menstrual cycle. A lack of education about proper menstrual hygiene has also dramatically elevated the rate of cervical cancer, says Businessweek. This hygiene-cancer link is backed up by a 2003 study, which found that reusing cloths was associated with a 2.5 times greater risk of serious cervical problems compared to clean cloths or menstrual pads.
Our societies need to stop treating menstruation as a taboo topic and encourage an open, comfortable dialogue that will assist women to be comfortable with their bodies.