We often use the adverb “naturally” to explain inevitable things whose occurrence we just have to accept and deal with. We can’t run away from such things, we simply have to face them. Whenever that adverb is used, it therefore points to things that should be expected with certainty.
Naturally, the sun rises from the east every morning.
Ironically, the rule ceases to apply when it comes to menstruation. No one wants to accept the natural reality of periods. It is a phenomenon that is rife in shame and secrecy.
No matter how educated we can be and boast of having the highest literacy rate in our continent, all that scientific gospel truth we have acquired about periods is often ignored and dropped.
That scientific knowledge which should be infallible is then replaced with entrenched myths and mysteries that have only existed to marginalise women, subject them to violence, impede their progress and have adverse effects on their health and dignity.
As we mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, it should be noted that we cannot completely challenge violence against women and girls without breaking all the taboos around menstruation.
Girls and women bleed, period! About 300 million women and girls menstruate every day in the whole world. In Zimbabwe, about 3 million girls and women menstruate every month. Menstruation is natural.
To then associate that natural process with dirt, disgust, shame, fear or as a women’s thing often creates bloody taboos that constrain human development.
A survey conducted by SNV Zimbabwe established that in Zimbabwe, 54 percent of girls are mocked or stigmatised during menstruation; while 26 percent are isolated and 13 percent are called names by boys. If menstruation is a natural reality, then why should girls and women suffer like this? Why should they be punished for simply being who they are? And why should that be allowed to happen?
The taboos surrounding periods have to be broken for women’s menstrual heath management to improve.
All of those taboos arise from lack of appropriate knowledge and information about periods. Boys and men become perpetrators of violence against menstruating women largely because they have little or no access to correct information and mainly rely on the taboos that have been inculcated onto them over the years. Some of these taboos are located right in the pockets of culture and religion and are practised with reckless abandon.
In some cultures in the country, girls having their periods must be isolated from their peers and menstruation should be kept a secret. By keeping it a secret, it then leaves the menstruating girl to bear alone all the pains and sufferings it entails. She cannot ask for sanitary pads or pain relievers to at least manage the pains of stomach cramps. Some girls end up missing school for days with some women also unable to do their work. Some are forced into sex work just to get money to buy sanitary wear so that they can go to school.
There is also a big misconception that early menstruation is a sign of a girl having had sex. The poor girl will then start to be labelled “hure” (prostitute) or someone of loose morals. This normally affects the girl’s participation and efforts as she will begin to have less interest with school. It can also cause her self-esteem to be very low or even subject her to bullying and constant humiliation. Some will eventually just quit school and without anything else to do, they eventually get married at a young age.
Some religions in the country also forbid women from entering holy shrines when they are menstruating, while some cultures also dictate that women are not supposed to sit among men during menstruation.
This often excludes them from activities and events where important decisions are made in their absence without their contributions. As a result, women often live by the rules they did not write, the majority of which undermine their rights and impedes on their development and progress.
Some men are taught not to touch or consult their wives when menstruating as it brings bad luck. Men therefore end up blaming their wives for their own failures and start abusing them.
There are other cultures that hold the belief that menstrual fluids are so dirty and foul that they can even rot pickled foods. This is why menstruating women are also forbidden from going into the fields as it is believed that they will kill the crops.
Such fallacies have only been promoting misconceptions in the society that women hinder development while giving erroneous impressions that only men can succeed in everything they do.
Women on their periods, in some sections of the rural society, are forbidden from going to public water supply areas as it is believed that they will either contaminate the water or dry up the water source. This unreasonable requirement often affects women’s hygiene when menstruating as they will not be able to fetch water to bath, cook or do other chores.
Some women are actually forbidden to cook during their period because it is believed that their “uncleanliness” will spoil the food.
There are also women who hold the belief that slipping some of your period blood into a man’s food or drink will cause him to fall deeply in love with you.
All these taboos and fallacies continue to hide the truth that can actually change mindsets and bring more light to demystify some of the wrong facts about periods.
Further; policymakers, the majority of whom are male, cannot craft better menstrual health policies, if they do not have a concrete understanding about periods. As long as some male policymakers associate periods with some of the taboos above, period poverty will continue. They therefore should rise above their cultural and religious beliefs and be guided by the scientific gospel truth about the natural process of menstruation.
If we break all the taboos around menstruation, we will improve access to menstrual products, health of women, human development, equality and success of women. Most importantly, we will also eliminate period shaming and all the stigmas around menstruation. If we change this, we positively change the future.
– Theresa Nyava is the executive director of Sanitary Aid Zimbabwe (SanAid Zim), a charity organisation that fights period poverty by distributing free menstrual health products and education to disadvantaged girls and women. To support SanAid Zim, contact them on email: [email protected]