I vividly remember when I started my periods and the time leading up to it; I had little information about my body as you can imagine a young primary school girl only aged 12. But I remember learning about it in class with a classroom half full of boys and all the male teacher said was when girls get to a certain stage they start bleeding and they bleed every month, this lesson was a nightmare for the girls in that class as you can imagine and fun for the boys. What followed were weeks on end of boys teasing and making fun of us about periods and when we were going to start how they will know each month when we are on our periods and how we cannot hide it because our hands get soft and all that. I was shocked at how much they knew about my body and ashamed at the same time of myself for knowing so little about my body. So when I finally started my periods my mum like many mothers would do in my society invited one of her older friends to come talk to me and this old woman delivered the same message which am sure most Malawian girls are familiar with. She said: “Don’t play with boys” “Now you are a woman, you will get pregnant” “Hide it from your father” “Don’t cook this, don’t touch that” and the worst of it all this woman lied straight to my face that my father should never see my period blood or else he will go blind. This stranger suddenly taught me how to behave in my house and with my father. There was so much emphasis on how my relationship with my father had to change as I was “different” now. All this information could not be digested by my little 12-year-old immature brain. But I adjusted. I changed.
I remembered all this as I was doing research on period shaming for a weekly twitter conversation I host. I had never heard of the term before and during my research I stumbled upon The Period Poem this poem was written by Dominique Christina a performance artist and activist who is also a mother to a 13-year-old daughter. The poem is a response to a tweet full of shaming menstruation which was sent by a young boy who states that he dumped his girlfriend because she started her periods while they were having sex. Dominique’s daughter sent her a munched text of the tweet. The poem is also dedicated to her daughter for whom she threw a period party when she started menstruating and all invited guests wore red, the house was decorated in red all the food and drinks were red. All red everything!
The poem is powerful, intense and profound and speaks even louder on issues that have been there from way back in history of how women are shamed, embarrassed and made to feel awkward about a natural body function. something that half the population experiences at some point in their life and have no control over. something as natural as breathing. A monthly reminder of the power women’s bodies have to recreate and give life. yet still in the 21st century period shaming exists. Period shaming does not only exist in my society or the most rural villages in Africa it cuts across borders, religion, race and color. The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some ethnic groups are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods and there are health issues connected to this, like infections caused by using dirty rags. There is the story of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it; the subsequent infection meant her uterus had to be removed when she was 13.
Lately there has been talks in the girls’ education discourse of the impact menstruation has on girls absenteeism at school and so dropping out. There is no doubt that menstruation is associated with many physical, sociocultural, and economic challenges for school-going girls and young women in the developing world. Among them are the physical discomforts and inconveniences of menstruation, ranging from cramps to headaches; lack of access to adequate sanitary materials and toilets on school grounds; and, limited information of menstruation, which can lead to shame and poor preparation for dealing with the physical issues. Poverty plays an important role as well since most girls cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. A couple of weeks ago UNICEF Malawi (with funding from DFID under one of their WASH projects in Salima) officially opened the new toilets they built at Yambe and Mkwero community day secondary schools. the project aims to improve sanitation at schools by constructing 3 toilets per school; one for girls, one for boys and the other one for staff members. The cost of one toilet is about MK15 million ($34,000).
But I wonder, in constructing girls’ only toilet in public schools, are we not as programmers perpetuating period shaming? If it is a natural body function for girls and the boys at school know this too well from their Biology class why then do we feel the need to exclude girls and make them have their own toilet? If it is a normal body function they have no control over WHY the need to hide them and add to the shame and guilt that society is already subjecting them to. The Population Council conducted a survey in Malawi to find out the connection between girls’ absenteeism and menstruation; the findings showed that nearly one-third of female students reported missing at least one day of school during their previous menstrual period. However, the data shows that menstruation accounts for only a small proportion of all female absenteeism. The lack of a gender gap in overall absenteeism underscores this finding.
Tackling the issue of period shaming should begin at home. It is after all a family issue: that is where culture and tradition are deeply rooted and manifest. It is about fathers, brothers, uncles and all men in the house being part of the period talk with the girl child; and not leaving it as another task for the mother and women in the house. as a little girl, I would have loved for my father to have been part of my period talk. in shunning away, he was the first person that subjected me to period shaming and made me feel dirty which crushed my little heart. Because I adored my father I talked like him, picked up on his habits even wore his perfume for all of my secondary school life and part of my college life because I wanted to smell and be like him in every way. And now as my niece is about to hit puberty I hope she has a different experience than my own, I hope I will convince my in-law to be part of her period party, yes, I will throw her one. Waiting to see the shocked reaction on my mother and sisters’ faces 😉