menstruation is among the most natural processes of the female body. Yet, so much stigma and shame is attached to it in different cultures across the world. Stigma and shame that is usually dressed in pride. “Don’t say you’re menstruating, say you’re unclean” is a phrase I am very familiar with. The first person to say this to me is one of my uncles. According to him, the word “menstruation” is too vulgar, instead, I should say that I’m “unclean” because that is the more polite and appropriate term to use, especially when speaking to men.
My first experience with ‘real shame’ was at 13 years old. I was in Junior Secondary School happily and unknowingly running across my school’s football field; celebrating a point scored by my class in a hand ball game against another class with blood stained uniform. I remember how two senior students came to me with hushed voices telling me that my uniform was stained with blood and gave me a hoody to tie around my waist. I cried, not because I felt any pain but because of how everyone looked at me. I could see the judgment in their eyes. In that moment, I thought of another girl whose uniform was stained with blood a few weeks before that, and how everyone called her careless, in that moment I thought“ is that what they are saying about me now?” “am I the careless one now?” I had previous experiences with shame, but this was different, I felt small, I wanted to disappear. But I did not, I clumsily tied the jumper around my waist and walked home with my friends.
Society constantly tells women that menstruation should be a secret. That menstruation is a pride, as a result woman should not be careless about it by being loud and proud. Yet, the messaging surrounding menstruation speaks of disgust and impurity, thus, contributing immensely to the stigma and shame that has been associated with menstruation for so long. Period shaming is not and has never been about protecting the dignity of women and girls. It has always been about asking women to negotiate and tone down their humanity for society’s comfort. It is funny how the world is so wary of blood-stained skirts, yet little is done to ensure that women’s sanitary products are accessible and affordable.
For millions of girls around the world, the stigma and shame associated with menstruation does not only mean that they get to feel uncomfortable; it means that they miss out on school and are more likely to drop out. According to UNESCO 100 million girls of Senior Secondary School age are not going to school. Furthermore, according to UNICEF about 1 in 10 girls across Africa miss school because of menstruation every month.
Although several factors contribute to this, period shaming and in adequate access to sanitary products are major contributing factors. Instead of encouraging girls to talk about their periods openly or teach them how to deal with cramps, best sanitary practices when menstruating, sex education etc. We shame them into thinking that periods are negative and should be kept secret. We take away the pride in the female body’s ability to woman and replace it with stigma and shame. We say backward and dangerous things like “sula goor lal leh, da nga birr”. We fail to teach girls about the different types of sanitary products that may be available to them and give them the time and space to choose one that may be more suitable for them, because we are more concerned with protecting hymens, so we tell girls to stick to the pads and avoid everything else.
It is time that we have honest, open and shame free conversations about periods, especially with teenage girls because when we support girls through their periods with accurate information, adequate sanitary products and safe and shame free spaces to engage in conversations about their bodies and its developments, we empower them and contribute immensely to creating an environment where they can thrive.
It is time to destigmatize periods, and fuck the patriarchy because to bleed from our vaginas is not a choice but a part of our biology. It is time to rebel against the system that shames us for no reason.
When I told my uncle that I was menstruating, instead of saying I was “unclean”, it was deliberate; an act of rebellion, it was to say menstruation does not make me unclean and I refuse to be shamed for something I have no control over, Or my body and its natural womanly process. Now I do not say that I am “unclean” I say that I’m “menstruating”; I say it loud, proud and unshamed.