Growing up, I was taught that menstruation was a private affair. I learnt that no one was supposed to know when I was on my period. Everything about how I handled myself during my periods had to be discreet. Nobody was supposed to see my pads; I was to handle them like contraband goods. In-fact supermarkets still wrap pads in newspapers for secrecy.
During my Church ministry days, I would be discouraged from taking part in the Holy Communion while on my periods and I would hear whispers about women not being allowed on the pulpit while menstruating due to the uncleanliness attached to menses. Those whispers settled somewhere in me and as a result, I felt it inappropriate to talk about my period. I couldn’t talk about whether it was normal to itch, burn or get rashes during my menses. Conversations around periods were centred on hygiene and being clean during your menses.
As a result, I felt like bringing up rashes and itching during my period would lead to being shamed for being considered dirty or unhygienic. There was also the risk of being considered ‘Promiscuous’ because itching, burning or rashes could also mean that I was exposed to a Sexually Transmitted Infection. The idea that the menstrual product I was using could be the problem and not my body was out of question because what if it was just me?
In some parts of Africa, menstruating girls do not go to the communal water pump or the communal toilets or communal gatherings like church. She doesn’t prepare food and often doesn’t go to school. She doesn’t pray with her family. Traditions says she is impure, someone to be kept at bay lest she contaminates water or a meal. Menstrual hygiene remains a challenge.
Menstrual conversations open up to sex conversations which most parents are unable to have with their children and therefore choose to only talk about hygiene.
In some communities, the beginning of a period marks the transition into adulthood and that could result in a girl being married off or even circumcised. It is this history of period shaming that has resulted in the lack of conversations around periods, the quality of sanitary solutions and normal and abnormal menses. This silence and shame have cost us deeply.
I was scrolling the Twitter feed one fine morning in October 2019. There was a hashtag on Scheaffer Okore an Afro-political Feminist leader and writer and Dr Njoki Ngumi who is a Healthcare giver and Sexual Reproductive Health Rights Feminist timelines that caught my attention. The hashtag was #MyAlwaysExperience. It caught my eye because I had been using the Always pads since I started menstruating.
The hashtag created an opportunity for Kenyan women including myself to share our experience with the brand. I read about the itching, burning, rashes and smell that were as a result of the Always Pads. I was mad and angry. I stared at my phone in disbelief because I thought I was the problem!! I thought that itching and burning during my periods was normal. I even had believed it was because my blood was acidic and that explained the burning. Since my period was acidic, that means that it completely changes my PH and hence the yeast infection evidenced by the itching. I blame this kind of reasoning on the shame around conversations around our bodies, menstruation and periods. Before the conversation online I would never have openly talked about the fact that I itch during my periods because of the fear of being judged and being labelled unhygienic or whispers of having an STI.
Even though I was angry, I felt the tension leave my body with every tweet I put out that day. A huge part of me felt relieved because; I wasn’t the only one itching and burning during my periods and my body wasn’t the problem, IT WAS THE PADS!!!! The expectation that the problem could be my body and not the product is the reason we need to be bold and very intentional about conversations about our bodies. Silence and shame has never protected women. I fixed my fingers and joined the conversation using the hashtag. I talked about my experience. I tweeted as angrily and as honestly as I could. It was my experience. I raised my voice in demanding quality pads. I knew I was not going to use the pads again. But knowing that Always Kenya has a large market and large reach, this wasn’t just about me and my experience. African women deserve good things like quality sanitary products.
April Zhu, a freelance journalist explained why the Kenyan Market is flooded with sanitary towels with plastic linings which irritate women’s skin. She explains that the two main categories of top-sheets are polyethene (PE film) and nonwovens. Both are plastic derivatives, but PE films are cheaper and less comfortable because as she further explains, it is a thin sheet of plastic with lots of tiny holes, which especially in warm climates, can cause skin irritation by not allowing fluids to pass through as quickly, or by trapping humidity between the pad and the skin.
We continue to call Always to a higher standard of quality and care, as they have the resources to produce quality pads, they have the largest distribution network and because African women deserve quality products. People who menstruate across the Continent deserve quality and affordable menstrual products. Pushing back against companies producing poor quality products cannot be the responsibility of women alone. Capitalism comes to exploit, destroy and make profits. In the absence of strict standards and thorough government inspection and safety protocols, women will continue to be vulnerable to harmful menstrual products and this will have a severe impact on our health. It is not enough to suggest that women change the products being used as a response to poor quality products in the markets.
Choice is a luxury we cannot afford especially where the choices present aren’t quality choices.
The fight for quality menstrual products needs to be continuously and deliberately fought by every agency and person on the continent. The Bureau of Standards has failed women, consumer federations have been complicit in their silence and the governments have not been keen on measures that protect citizens from poor quality goods.
This is not a fight that can be left to women alone while everybody else moves onto other things. The un-shaming of period conversations must lead us to understand the cultural stigma around menstruation and the ways menstruation weaponised against women and girls to deny them opportunities. Unshaming periods also means taking into account social-economic factors around the quality, affordability, access and disposal of sanitary products. It is also not enough to supply sanitary products without looking into offering menstrual education and access to water and sanitation facilities. We must continue to be unashamed of conversations around our bodies because our menstrual and reproductive health literally depends on it.
In her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, Nanjala Nyabola states, “And in public spheres that still routinely silence the voices of women, the digital spaces are making it possible for women to scream into the void”. Kenya women screamed into the void and we are yet to see whether we were really heard.
Feature photo via Flickr
Wanjiru Nguhi is an Afro -politico Feminist, lawyer, writer and Founder of Mwafrika Mwenzangu.