Written by Ephraim Kisangala
World Menstrual Hygiene Day 2014 was the first of its kind and celebrated by more than one hundred organisations world over. Being a member of Friends of IRISE-KIU Western Campus (FOI), I was privileged to have learnt about this subject prior to the day. We discussed in depth the issue of menstruation, activities we wanted for the day and also got training on making reusable sanitary pads.
I do not remember when I first knew that women menstruate, but I am pretty sure it was during one of the biology lessons in high school. The lessons were plain, explaining just the science and cycle and nothing more. Comments on painful periods, cultural practices, menstrual hygiene or management were almost unheard of in class.
The campaign started on a high note as the entire team was eager to engage in activities aimed at empowering and educating the community on breaking the silence around menstruation. The FOI team consisted of several other student bodies including Federation of African Medical Students’ Associations (FAMSA) and Kampala International University Students’ Academic Forum (KIUMSAF). The fear and the silence that usually surrounds the topic seemed to have been replaced by the concern for the poor girl who misses school, knows nothing about menstruation, and uses dirty rags, leaves, cotton or anything else they could find.
Despite this prior engagement with the issue of menstruation and all that I had learnt from being involved in Friends of IRISE, I was not prepared for all the lessons from Menstrual Hygiene Day. The FOI group started the preparation for the May 28th celebrations by engaging students on social media, creating school education programmes, making reusable pads, and hosting a community day complete with a school marching band.
As we embarked on the social media campaign on Facebook and WhatsApp, I did not expect to learn as much as I did. The responses to my posts, articles I read and activities in which I participated opened up a completely different dimension on the topic.
The first comment to strike me was asked by a female doctor in response to one of my Facebook posts:
“Ephraim, won’t you relent?”
This response triggered a memory of my mother’s experience of menstruation. Back when she was younger she suffered from menorrhagia and periods that were often irregular, heavy, very painful and scary. Not even medical workers understood her situation, thereby offering little support. She does not remember attending school during those awful days and always wished periods never existed.
Periods were literally a curse even when I was an adult working. Thank God, I am past that.” – My Mother
A friend also surprised me saying, “The only regret I have for being a woman is my period.” She had sought medical attention for the excessive bleeding during menstruation that was affecting her job and lifestyle.
In another article on www.mum.org, a disgusted lady wrote a letter to the manager of Always saying, “Are you kidding me? Does your brain really think happiness – actual smiling is possible during a menstrual period? Unless you are a freak.” She promised never to buy the Always pads because of the words, “Have a Happy Period” on its packaging.
Back at the medical school, the WhatsApp chat page had only a few active females throughout the campaign. Meanwhile, the male students dominated the events and activities in preparation for Menstrual Hygiene Day. The organizing committee was also mainly male except for a handful of female students, including our fantastic chair Buddu Atwiine. The pupils in one of the primary schools were quite disappointed with the gender imbalance and even inquired why the males would go to teach menstrual hygiene without females.
After the fantastic day was over and I had some time to reflect, I began to feel that you can never truly comprehend the magnitude of challenges an African girl faces when it comes to menstruation, be it talk or the process, if you are not female.
At the end of the day, we in East Africa must come up with solutions for the following challenges:
- The deeply rooted culture and taboos in Africa making talk about the menstruation difficult for everyone.
- The stigma surrounding menstruation still keeps many females from disclosing their challenges that would otherwise be solved.
I believe menstruation is normal and every woman has the right experience her periods with dignity. I am hopeful we can achieve this in Africa and around the world.
Ephraim is a final year medical student at Kampala International University (KIU) and is currently the President of the Federation of African Medical Students’ Associations (FAMSA). He is also involved in several other organisations in different capacities including Friends of IRISE KIU; Uganda Christian Medical Fellowship- Students’ Chapter; Bushenyi Integrated Rural Development (BIRD). He is also a member of the KIU-GRADUATE TRACKING TECHNICAL WORK GROUP supported by MEPI (Medical Education Partnership Initiative). He is very passionate about identifying ways in which medical students can act as key players in community transformation.