Period shame is a ‘burden’ associated with growing up for girls as half-truths and outright lies have been peddled about menstruation to make it look like a dirty side of womanhood
Jane Mwiya is no longer the 16-year-old girl who could cower and hide every time she was having her menses. She is now 35 years, yet when she is having her periods she gets the weird feeling that maybe she should just stay at home and hide from the public.
Even in this age of enlightenment, she dreads displaying sanitary pads and struggles to wriggle her way out of the office carrying ‘the small bag’ that announces to all and sundry that she is going through ‘that time of the month’.
Growing up, Mwiya knew having periods meant she was not supposed to do certain things such as cooking. Having menses was seen as unhygienic or unclean and handling ‘sensitive’ chores was prohibited.
“We grew up with this mentality, mainly because we lacked the right information. I learnt about menses when I first had them. I had never had those conversations and whenever I asked my sister, she said one day I’d know. The whole issue went beyond that; even being seen carrying a packet of pads was weird. Buying pads was an issue in itself. You had to hide it so that people would not notice, especially men,” she says.
In the African society, when a girl came of age and started her menses, she had to deal with her changing body and the shame that was attached to having periods.
Saumu Musa comes from a community where the menstrual topic is a taboo. The topic is never talked about and those who dare did so in hushed tones.This meant that she had to be isolated for a few days until she stopped bleeding and that meant sleeping in a secluded place away from her father’s home.
In her community some men assume that it doesn’t happen and worse, it is even considered a curse to have menses. As a result, many girls suffer in silence, as they are afraid of the ridicule they could face.
In society today, as much as there is a lot of information on the menstrual topic, the humiliation has evolved and one of the common myths that we hear of today is that when a woman is angry or upset, then they are probably on their periods. This is most common ,especially when referring to an angry woman. The saying goes: “Don’t mind her, she’s probably having mashiro.”
Another common myth is that women crave sex while in their period. This has been debatable, but during a menstrual cycle, there are a lot of hormonal changes. Dr Esther Nyakio of Metropolitan Hospital explains that when ovulating and the egg has started its way into the fallopian tubes women tend to have a high sex drive.
This means, when you’re about to have your period, the uterus expands with blood and there is pressure on the nerve endings, and the brain may interpret that as touch, which may cause sensitivity. This may be interpreted as stimulation, but more often it’s not.
Due to the deceitful myths, some communities are still backward and deep-rooted in the beliefs that surround menses. Dr Nyakio says that as a result of inadequate information on menstruation, many young girls are suffering because of poor hygiene, which can lead to infections and that affects overall the girl’s performance in school and also her confidence.
Also the theory that menstrual blood is dirtier than normal blood is untrue. Perhaps that’s why menses are associated with being ‘unclean’ in some communities. Dr Nyakio explains that blood is the same, but during the menstrual cycle it may appear thick or even darker due to the hormonal changes that happen during that time.
The notion that tampons could get lost inside the vagina and should not be used during a heavy period is a myth. Nyakio says the vagina is not endless, such that a tampon can disappear, so girls can use them freely.
The idea that you should not workout during your menses is also a myth. However, Dr Nyakio says extreme work out is not encouraged. “This is because your body is preparing for a potential pregnancy should the egg be fertilised during ovulation. In this period the body temperature and metabolism changes and as a result the body doesn’t have the endurance that it normally has,” she explains.
A recent study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Menstrual Health Management in East and Southern Africa: A Review Paper, indicates that nearly fifty per cent of women globally have experienced period shame and the misinformation has made most girls and women vulnerable to gender discrimination, isolation, early marriages and menstrual disorders.
“Menstruation is a topic that in most cases is not be discussed freely, that’s why there should be programmes to deal with the stigma and cultural barriers. The society needs to be involved and that includes educating men and young boys on the issue. That’s why men shouldn’t distance themselves from the topic,” says Dr Nyakio.