We all seem to know that women and girls have periods every month. It’s a common knowledge, right? but do we know bloody injustices we are all part of? If you don’t, then you are part of the problem…
I am not a doctor, so I will not try to explain the biological processes leading to women ‘period’ or as we call it in Swahili ‘hedhi’ What I can only tell you is, period/hedhi/menstruation is a normal biological routine for all mature women – it’s a health thing. What astonishes me however is how the world has decided to make this biological routine the most shameful thing – even though, almost half of the world is bleeding every month; how unjust this is!
When I got my first period, 23 years ago, my mom did not talk to me – it’s taboo, instead she called my aunts. They handed me pieces of ‘khanga’ and the first rule was, NO BODY (that includes, my mom, cousins, relatives etc) should know when am in my period. Could you imagine that? I was forbidden from talking about my own blood – the world can be a strange place for some of us.
They instructed me to dry my pieces of ‘Khanga’ under the mattress so no one would see them and I was ordered to avoid any unnecessary movements – this meant I should aim to stay home every time that I am bleeding! Then comes other instructions, ‘don’t water flowers, don’t go to farm and harvest, don’t wash your father’s clothes, don’t pray, don’t fast … don’t this, don’t that. There were so many DON’Ts I felt that a period is a punishment and I hated it.
Luckily I went to secondary school and then one day a bell rang and all girls were asked to assemble in a school hall. It took a Sanitary Pads Company doing marketing for me to be introduced to sanitary pads. Mind you, I was not raised in ‘rural village’, I was raised in a town – it took a company to come sell their products for me to know that there is another option than wearing a khanga! I decided to abandon ‘khanga’ right away but the struggle was real to master the art of wearing pads with ‘wings’ with no master to guide. I had to save my own school stipend to buy pads because again, I remembered no one should know. If I asked my parents for money, they will definitely know so I didn’t.
Years after I thought I had navigated through the period taboo, a clan of women sat me down to prepare me for marriage and again the period talk came up where they told me that my husband SHOULD NEVER KNOW when I am in my period. This time I had my degree and I was half baked feminist so I ask them how it will be possible for a person who ought to be my better half not to know I am in my period? The answer was consistence, he shouldn’t. I was ordered to hide my pads in my wardrobe, I was taught signs to alert him on my bleeding and I was again showered with endless list of DON’T’s. This time I made a vow not to obey, just to find out he too was made to believe women period is the thing he shouldn’t know, talk or care about. If anything he should stay as far from me as he could, and he did. That was systematic first class injustice
Fast forward, I took a pledge early this 2018, to contribute to ending this bloody injustice. I believe every woman has a right to have decent period. That will mean granting every women unlimited access to information, services, facilities and products they need for safer and health period. While progress has been made especially in urban centers, most women and girls are still battling bloody injustices.
Few months in the campaign, I was stunned on how uncomfortable people are to talk about period and how little they know about it – men and women alike. In several WhatsApp groups where I made a deliberate decision to constantly talk about period, I have witnessed men and women shocked when I posted pictures of tampons and menstrual cups – these are middle class Tanzanians who ought to be exposed on number of things but when it comes to period they still own ancient knowledge. And they see nothing wrong about that. I feel the world – categorically makes it a mission to deny us information and knowledge about period, and because we know less, we can hardly complain – how unjust!
As a continent we still do not have comprehensive statistics on menstrual health, we have not documented in a consistent manner women experiences. It is estimated only 20% of women in Tanzania are using improved menstrual products – mostly pads- the rest are using rags, cow dang, banana leaves, pieces of mattress etc. Lack of facts and figure limits our ability to make informed policy decisions which lead to a complete cycles of shamefulness. The society rejects any conversation on period and our policies are equally blind. For sure this is a state engineered and society endorsed kind of injustice
I should be grateful to the tax exemption decisions in Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana etc, indeed it is a step in the right direction. First, prices have gone down – at least from most wholesalers – but a lot need to be done to ensure the same is reflected to the last mile consumers. Secondly, any government to tax period, that is hard core patriarchy right there! I am thankful, a bold statement has been made that, a period should NOT be Taxed. Now, what is left is normalizing period and ensures is factored in our thought process and reflected in our planning and implementation across the board
This 2019, we should all take a minute to imagine menstrual experience of girls and women living with disabilities or HIV/AIDS or those in custody, with no access to improved menstrual products or decent facilities like water and toilets? Specifically with disability community they make the majority of poverty stricken families, hence less likely to afford those products from the market.
‘I wish I could be able to wash my period rags, but I don’t have hands and I feel bad for my relatives who are doing that for me. I totally understand when they get tired to do that sometime, I would be tired washing someone’s blood every month too,’ said one young lady living with physical disability. In my conversation with another woman caring for HIV patients she highlighted her biggest challenge is when patient is in her period, washing her period rags became sensitive and concerning. To date we know little of menstrual experiences of women in custody especially in countries like Tanzania.
While some of us are committed to break traditional barriers in 2019, normalizing period, challenging taboos and involving men to talk and care about period, African governments can easily ensure poor women and girls, women in custody, People Living with HIV & AIDS (PLHA’s) and people with disabilities especially those in school have equitable access to menstrual products, facilities and knowledge they need to bleed in dignity. It’s not that hard, it will only requires governments to be intentional and strategic to channel available support to communities needing them the most.
To fellow women, let’s be bit adventurous 2019, lets commit to learn and talk about our periods and importantly let’s upgrade our experiences, you don’t deserve to be stuck on what your grandma told you! Spoil yourself with ‘new menstrual trends’ in town. For husbands and fathers, be part of the solutions otherwise you will be the part of continued bloody injustices. Happy 2019!