Overcoming the Social Stigma on Menstruation

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Many young women, especially in developing countries have to hide from the limelight during their monthly periods. Many students have to miss some days of school every month during their periods, which is absurd in the 21st century!

According to a 2007 UNICEF report, girls in primary school between grades six and eight lose approximately eighteen out of 108 school weeks due to her menstrual period. Girls in high school miss 156 learning days, which is equivalent to almost twenty-four out of 144 weeks of school, creating virtual school drop-outs while still in school. Most impoverished women make-do with dirty rags, cotton wool, leaves, and paper as improvised menstrual napkins. This unsanitary and degrading practice exposes women to many diseases, including bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. It also brings discomfort and lowers self-esteem. To shed more light on the seriousness of this issue, watch this video made by one of the leading TV stations in Kenya.

As if the time isn’t hard enough for women to deal with every month, we are shocked by the fact that there is still a lot of stigma surrounding the issue of menstruation not only in weak economies but globally. Even in rich countries, there is still a lot of shame and disgrace on menstruation, although they use some jargon like Crimson flow, on the rag, ride the cotton pony, shark week, women trouble, when the moon is red, etc. While some of these words and expressions sound funny, such as ‘have the painters in’ and ‘Congratulations! It’s an egg’, some words are however very demeaning to women and seek to portray menstruation as a negative thing instead of as a normal biological process that all healthy women go through. Some of the most demeaning words you will come across are phrases like BV (acronym of Bloody Vagina), drainage, leaking, in the abyss, potential murder suspect and Dracula’s tea bag, which refers to tampons and sanitary pads.

In sub-Saharan Africa, we might be behind economically, but we sure are keeping up with the first world in contriving derogatory and demeaning language on menstruation. Most of the time, it is tantamount to verbal abuse on women. In Kenya, for example, we have some phrases that will prick one's marrow. Some common Swahili phrases are ananyesha which means ‘she is raining,’ ana-dagger — she’s been stabbed, and ana-kuma chozi or nyap machozi, which can translate to crying vagina or pricked vagina, etc. It is saddening that in the 21st Century, our women not only have to deal with menstrual hygiene needs but also endure the stigma of menstruation.

Some religions still consider women unclean while menstruating and therefore do not allow women to mingle with ‘clean’ people freely. Let me pose a question for you; ever thought of why Muslim women do not worship together with men? Or why in some churches there are pews on this side for men and that side for women?

I sought to know why Muslim men worship separately from women even though God is one and we are all equal in God’s eyes, after beating about the bush the Imam answered me, ‘I would not want to be quoted widely, but women become unclean while menstruating.’ I was shocked and decided to be stubborn, so I asked the Imam in a likely way to agree with him, ‘and God cannot mix with unclean?’ To this he shouted a big, yes, so I posted another question ‘what happened to the prayers of a woman while in her periods…does God listen? Or, better still, if a woman dies while menstruating…does she goes to hell even if she was faultless?’ At this point, the Imam chased me away, I was asking too many questions, so he said, and God doesn’t like many questions much less on petty matters.

To be fair, I found it best to know why the gender stereotyping persisted in the Church as well, the priest told me that sometimes it is best to separate men from women during worship as men get easily sexually aroused even by seeing and imagination hence taking one away from the focus-God. But being a man, I found it hard to agree with this school of thought to its totality; I think it is a myth that has been passed on for many generations. But just as I was digesting this, the priest went on and added, ‘but primarily, women get unclean every month when menstruating.’ The frowning on priest’s face did not encourage me to engage him with further questions so I left with the definite conviction that we must do every possible thing to defeat the stigma attached to menstruation. Personally, I think no religion will take one to God but wholly devotion to Him and equal treatment of all irrespective of gender because we are all created in one image of God.

Sadly, in our modern time, menstruation is still surrounded by shame, silence and social taboos that are further manifested in social practices whereby many cultures restrict women’s access to healthy activities and freedoms, for example in some cultures women cannot mingle freely during their periods, touch or serve food for they are perceived unclean, etc . I have a conviction that there must be concerted efforts, not just in meeting menstrual hygiene needs but first and foremost in defeating the stigma surrounding the issue of menstruation that affects women of all walks. Gladly, in Kenya, there is a new, vibrant campaign dubbed ‘From Men to Men: Let’s End Stigma on Menstruation.’ This campaign is spearheaded by the Fountain of Hope Life Centre, an award-winning community-based organization in Kiambu county with a broader reach and influence. The objective of this campaign is to engage men in meeting menstrual hygiene needs, but primarily to actively address menstrual stigma with a time-line goal of defeating this type of gender stereotyping by 2030. This video will tell you more about their work.

Men do not menstruate. Hence they do not experience the pain that comes with periods. On buzzfeed.com different women try to explain what having periods feels like, the type of pain they have to endure, from the horses’ mouth, some women say, ‘All you want to do is sleep and sit on something soft. If you have front cramps, it feels like someone has your abdomen in a vice. If they are back cramps, it feels like someone is kicking you in the tailbone over and over’yet some say ‘it’s like a spear running all the way through my lower abdomen and the feeling of needing to poop’ and so on and so on.

All men will agree with me that this is excruciating pain, and the least we can do is stand with our women during this time, helping women to embrace the standard, positive biological cycle that inevitably must come for a few days every month. Fathers and husbands should feel free to talk about menstruation with their daughters and wives, and this freedom will see many men meeting menstrual hygiene needs an obligation. With many men in leadership positions, men should push for better policies that will address menstrual-related stigma and obligate systems and governments to adhere to declarations already in place. For example, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights, a UN's arm, stated that 'Every woman’s right to water, sanitation and hygiene,' but in its own footnote there is an admission that, and I quote, "guaranteeing the right to water, sanitation, and hygiene is 'an enormous human rights challenge of the twenty-first century that has yet to be met."

I think this is the time we need a paradigm shift, move from words to action, from policies to implementation.

In my conclusion, I’d ask, Is it not a fact that without menstruation, there is no life? Will I be right to say that you and I are an egg that was lucky or destined to be you and me? Why then do we disgrace other eggs that never saw the day? This is crazy hypothetical thinking, but those could have been your brothers or sisters and don't we all love our siblings?

This article is meant to provoke a dialogue on ending stigma on menstruation. Please share it widely and engage, as all views are valid.

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