On May 28 the world celebrated Menstruation Hygiene Day. Yes it has taken us to pause one day to reiterate what is a normal human phenomenon as if menstruation only happens once in the year. We should recognize menstruation and speak about it every day as menstruation matters.
I write this article to share about stigma and other experiences around menstruation. I am actually writing this while stuck in this UN helicopter in South Sudan, from Juba to Akobo. While I am enjoying the beauty of our country from above, I am also aware that millions of girls and women below live in and face violence everyday. And in the face of such violence as a result of a war and social violations, menstrual hygiene might not seem to the issue but we can’t afford to cherry pick what affects women and girls. I decided to reflect on how life can get ugly.
Challenging stigma surrounding menstruation is important in regaining control of our bodies as women and girls.
We should recognize, talk about and celebrate our bodies and menstruation every day and every second, since every second and every microsecond girls and women are menstruating. How about the stigma that comes with menstruation? I live in a country and society where when that graceful time of the month comes, it is like a taboo to even mention the P word. Some people have developed fancy words for periods like; “My bridge just broke down” or an Arabic Juba phrase “Kuburi kasur ” or “ It’s raining on my parade” or “I’m in my morning days”-because of the pains that come with menstruation.
I remember the first time I got my periods. I was about 14 years and had come home for holidays from boarding school. One of the most painful period in my life. I had headache, backaches, nausea, mood swings and I was wondering what was happening to my body. I remember calling one of neighbourhood kids to jump on my back to reduce the backache that I had no idea the cause. I did not know that my periods were coming and no one had really told me that such a thing would happen to me. At school a senior teacher would call the older girls who had started their periods for “secret talks” and no one bothered to talk to younger girls about it.
So on that painful day, I recall my aunt was baking cookies and she kept sending me bring her items like sugar, baking floor. I remember her screaming at me for taking my time totally oblivious that ‘lazy girl’ was in too much pain- pain she did not understand. When the blood finally surprised me, I was still being sent around, my aunt noticed the change in my walking as I wouldn’t separate my legs much. She screamed asking me why I was walking that way. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what was going on. I was simply mortified teen girl.
I don’t know how but she figured out something was not okay. Later she would take me to the bathroom and asked me to remove my underwear which I did and there it was… red. I was scared, for a moment because I thought I had cut myself. She showed me how to clean myself that day. That was my first experience and it is no that different from many girls left on their own to figure out how their body changes.
Later in school, I remember instances when a girl “stamped her uniform”, yes we would use such offensive words to describe when period blood goes onto a girl’s uniform. Girls would have to wait in classroom until everyone went out otherwise she would be body shamed and laughed by the students. Yes menstruation was something to be ashamed of.
Many years after school, it baffles me that girls still have to go through the same stigma and denial of information about their own bodies. Taboos around menstruation still hold. Like the young girl we met through the mentoring program I worked on. She lives with her uncle and aunt plus other relatives. She was told by her uncle that he can offer her a place to stay but not school fees because he cannot afford. This determined young girl went and begged the school authorities to let her study and was accepted. But she has to walk for hours to the school which is about 30 minutes drive. She starts her journey at 11:00 AM in order to reach school by 1:00 PM for afternoon classes. With such a long journey and lack of materials, during her period she cannot go to school. She narrated how she has use clothes in the places of sanitary towels.
She’s one of the millions across the country whose access to education and opportunities is blocked by so many hurdles including lack of sanitary towels. In South Sudan, only about 16% of women are educated where women are 60 percent of the population. Girls dropout of school soon and lack of sanitary towels is one of the many reasons. If they stay, this affects their performance at school.
We cannot stop at commemorating one day in a year. Our families and schools must be at the forefront of breaking period taboos. Our governments should provide free sanitary towels and appropriate education because ultimately girls pay a higher price. We cannot help girls unless we start to openly talking about our bodies, our blood freely without fear of being stigmatized. Young women should be given necessary information as part of sex education to ensure they do not relive the stigmas their own mothers faced.
Riya Williams Yuyada is South Sudanese feminist with a passion for women’s human rights and peace. She is vocal on the experiences of South Sudan women and girls and other African women in conflict affected contexts. She is the Founder and Executive Director Crown The Woman South Sudan Find her on Twitter @theonlyriya1