Bleeding Shame?

Science thought us that menstruation is all about nature’s way of preparing for a fertilized egg, then if the girl/woman did not get pregnant (egg not fertilized), the lining nature made to nurture a child is released from the body as blood through the vagina. This impressive natural process keeps on happening every month to make sure the human race keeps on existing in the world.

Amazing right? Then, why is it treated as a taboo? Why is the conversation only limited to science classes? Why is the conversation about menstruation missing from households and even when it happens it is in hushed voices? Why do cultures, tradition and religions have unrealistic views shaming the most natural process in a girl/woman’s body? Why do even the most independent woman feel ashamed and the need to cover any hygienic materials bought to manage her period?

Well, when it comes to a woman, even now centuries of myth do hold a ground over scientific facts thanks to patriarchy. It’s really frustrating to see young girls, facing the same challenges as the previous generation of women did, simply because they bleed. Going back centuries the philosopher Pliny the elder said that during the Roman times, girls and women were asked not to look into a mirror during their periods, as they will cause the item to lose its brightness. In East Africa today, including in some parts of Ethiopia, a girl is told never to touch a plant when she is menstruating as it will cause it to dry out. In India the tune changes into- touch a cow, it will become infertile.

key facts on menstruation:

  1. On average a woman menstruates for about 7 years during their lifetime.
  2. The first period can be met with either celebration, fear or concern. For every girl, this signifies an important transition to womanhood – a time when they would benefit from the support of family and friends.
  3. Many girls do not have complete and accurate understanding of menstruation as a normal biological process. Educating girls before their first period — and, importantly, boys — on menstruation, builds their confidence, contributes to social solidarity and encourages healthy habits. Such information should be provided at home and at school.
  4. Poor menstrual hygiene can pose physical health risks and has been linked to reproductive and urinary tract infections. Many girls and women have limited options for affordable menstrual materials. Providing access to private facilities with water and safer low-cost menstrual materials could reduce urogenital diseases.
  5. Girls and women with disabilities and special needs face additional challenges with menstrual hygiene and are affected disproportionately with lack of access to toilets with water and materials to manage their period.
  6. Many women and girls do not have access to materials to manage their menstruation, especially in times of emergency — natural disasters and conflicts. In emergencies, UNICEF provides dignity kits to women and girls, which include sanitary pads, a flashlight and whistle for personal safety when using the toilet.
  7. Globally, 2.3 billion people lack basic sanitation services and in Least Developed Countries only 27 per cent of the population has a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. Managing periods at home is a major challenge for women and adolescent girls who lack these basic facilities at home.
  8. About half of the schools in low-income countries lack adequate drinking water, sanitation and hygiene crucial for girls and female teachers to manage their period. Inadequate facilities can affect girls’ experience at school, causing them to miss school during their period. All schools should provide running water, safe and clean toilets for adolescent girls.

UNICEF, May 2018

What breaks my heart is how patriarchy turns the most natural thing into a shameful act, making sure through religion or culture young girls in most part of the world keeps on bowing their head in shame. The shame of even asking a question about menstruation, the way parents avoid till you get it to talk to you about it. And when they do, it’s usually to tell the young confused girl who just got her period about all the things she is not supposed to do as she is UNCLEAN during her period. No detail explanation about what it is and why it’s happening. No supporting word or action letting the girls know it’s okay, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. None, Period!

The 2017 UNICEF knowledge, attitudes and practice baseline survey of menstruation health management in Ethiopia found that over half of schoolgirls in Ethiopia knew nothing about menstruation prior to menarche, leaving them shocked and frightened and less than half of the girls in the county are taught about menstrual hygiene in school. The majority of adolescent girls never discuss menstruation with another person. On average, 11 per cent of girls’ miss school for reasons related to their periods – this is as high as 46 per cent in some regions.

For women and girls living in low income countries like Ethiopia, the challenge is complicated. Most not only had to deal with the shame linked with menstruation but also lacks the means to manage their periods. Did you know that hundreds of girls in Addis Ababa don’t have pads to use during their period? Or that to avoid any accidents or teasing related to stains they stay at home missing classes?

“I use a piece of cloth to soak up the blood. As it is not enough, my uniform end up with stains. I felt so ashamed and stayed at home the whole week. My classmates still make fun of me. To avoid any embarrassment, I prefer to miss class and stay home during my period as I don’t have anything else to use during my period”, was what a young girl named Hanna* from Milinilk I Elementary school said during a reusable sanitary pads donation project survey in 2016. Sadly, Hanna* is not alone, there are thousand like her from Elementary to university level who lacks the basics to manage their periods. While they often depend on kind individuals, school administration, girls club, and supporters to get access to pads, the trauma of being in this position has left its mark.

In recent years, after getting information on girls missing school during their periods due to lack of hygienic materials to use, groups of women have started a reusable pads project in 26 government schools.  Legas Charity Organization aiming to address 500 girls in partnership with these groups of women had the following to say in regards to the situation in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia and Menstruation Health

Over the last decade, Ethiopia has seen strong macroeconomic growth, with experts forecasting this trend to continue in coming years. The average annual GDP growth for has been nearly 11%, making Ethiopia’s economy one of the fastest growing in the world. Within this economy, women’s role in this particular aspect is crucial as they constitute more than 50% of the population. Nonetheless, women and girls continue to face a broad set of structural violence which is shaped by discriminatory social norms and gender inequality that negatively affect their health, empowerment, and well-being. These inequities are seen when it comes to menstrual hygiene management. According to recent researches, approximately 80% of women and girls in rural areas use homemade alternatives, and just over a quarter of the population in both rural and urban settings have access to improved sanitation.

The inaccessibility of menstrual products results in embarrassment, anxiety and shame when girls and women stain their clothes in public, which is stigmatizing. Once girls start missing school they are far more likely to be exposed to other risks such as early pregnancy and marriage, HIV/AIDS and female genital mutilation. Increasing girl’s completion of education cycles is a critical component of efforts to build their wider empowerment and in particular for ensuring that they are able to be involved in decision making over all aspects of their lives including over their reproductive and sexual health rights. Additionally, inaccessibility of menstrual products compromises the effective uptake of family planning services. This is occasioned by the fact that girls who cannot afford disposable sanitary towels are more at risk of manipulation by men.

Overall, the main challenges faced by women and girls are:

  • The exorbitant cost of commercial sanitary pads;
  • Absenteeism where girls stay at home rather than attending school during menstruating;
  • Unhygienic ways in trying to manage menstruation cycles;
  • Inadequate waste disposal facilities;

Lack of privacy for changing menstrual materials;

  • Leakage from poor-quality protection materials;
  • Lack of resources for washing such as soap;
  • Limited education about the facts of menstruation;
  • Limited access to counseling and guidance;
  • Fear caused by cultural myths;
  • Embarrassment and low self-esteem;
  • Unsupportive attitudes of some men;

Recent data shows that 25% of rural girls and 4% of urban girls reported doing nothing to manage menstruation: simply washing or secluding themselves. Moreover, 65% of schoolgirls use homemade alternatives to manage their periods. The study shows sanity pad use is almost exclusively in urban areas. This data reflects the reality that a majority of girls in rural Ethiopia miss an average of 5 days per month of school as compared to their male counterparts.

Additionally, limited researches in this area show that women and girls face variety of issues when it comes to menstrual hygiene management like lack of and/or unavailability of sanitary pads, lack of education of menstruation and lack of appropriate sanitation facilities. This creates a significant gap in education for girls. A study by Population Council found that in Ethiopia 17% of girls reported having missed class due to menstruation in the last year, with a roughly equal proportion of urban and rural girls missing school. The most common reasons cited for missing class were pain/discomfort (69%), fear of having an accident at school (19%), embarrassment (15%), and having nothing to manage their periods (12%).

What Legas Charity with groups of women plans to do about it

As such, with this program, we hope to ameliorate the significant problems faced by women regarding Menstruation Hygiene Management (MHM) by supplying sanitary pads and educating them on the essential health issues in order to decrease absenteeism and improve self-esteem.

Coupled with basic reproductive health and personal hygiene training, the reusable pads with one-and-a-half-year shelf life donation project is not only keeping girls in schools but despite what the society is telling them aims to teach -there is no shame in bleeding. Yes, Menstruation is a natural process and not an act we need to be ashamed of.

As women we need to bring the menstruation conversation front and center. Have a collective voice to tackle society’s selective way of being or choosing to be ignorant to keep on supporting religion, culture and tradition shaming menstruation. In the meantime, to all the sisters out there, if you do have the means to buy a pad for a girl who can, please go ahead and do so. You have no idea what your small gesture helps to empower a girl.

Yes we the female race bleed and our ability to do that is what keeps the human race alive. Period!

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