Denormalizing Female Pain

Every time I go home, my mother cooks me my favorite food. As she makes the saucy cauliflower Manchurian, I often notice burns and cuts on her arm. When I scold her about the scrapes caused while slicing a particularly slippery zucchini, or the recent burn on her index finger from flipping flatbread, my thin-framed mother jokes about its triviality, considering it nothing. When I touch it and ask if it hurts, she winces and shrugs it off, because the pain is expected – a routine and normal part of her life.

There is a telling story in my mother’s cuts and burns that is representative of the everyday female experience.

From a very young age, women are taught to withstand pain; a punch from a boy signals affection, and the cramps from a first period symbolize impending womanhood. Through small steps of socialization, we are led to believe that pain is a necessary component of our lives, that it makes us stronger and prepares us for more pain to come.

As we go through puberty, suffering from more stomach pains, and as we watch our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, shrug off burns that must hurt, we learn to develop a threshold – a line that we are supposed to cross before the pain becomes more than normal.

Every month, when menstrual cramps make it impossible for us to get up, we are told to nap, and to embrace the pain, as a training session for childbearing. But as soon as the pain from the debilitating cramps tips over into fainting, we panic.

Why is it that we wait until someone faints or worse to take the pain from cramps seriously? Instead of teaching each other to embrace the pain as normal, why don’t we try to hear the stories of the cramps from the beginning and encourage solutions like OTC painkillers and heating pads?

This idea of assuming normalcy in pain doesn’t just impact the way we interact with each other on a daily basis. It translates to concrete consequences on our health as well. In 2014, over 90% of women in chronic pain felt that the healthcare system discriminated against them, and 65% felt that doctors took them less seriously, simply because of their gender. Women struggled to prove to doctors that their suffering was real, which delayed their proper treatment – by as much as almost 20 minutes in an acute emergency situation.

The more I read these studies, the more I realized that no matter what women do, their pain is discounted and largely ignored. And it is because doctors fall for the same stereotypes that we do. When I think of how women are considered to be more tolerant of pain, I think of my interactions with my mother, my grandmothers, my mentors, and my friends. I think about the times I have failed to notice the expression on my mother’s face as a drop of oil from the Manchurian accidentally hits a recent wound on her finger, even when she says it doesn’t hurt. I recall the number of times I, too, have shrugged off my friends’ complaints about their cramps, regarding them as exaggerating or being too dramatic for something that is totally “normal”, something that they should be able to bear.

There are many times I have unintentionally ignored the small calls from help that many women in my life have uttered – due to the stereotypes that have taught me to think of women’s physical pain as simply part of their lives.

Stereotypes, though, no matter how ingrained they may be, can be slowly chipped away. And that’s true for women’s pains as well. We, as women, can help each other by beginning to take others’ accounts and stories seriously. It can be as small as asking a fellow girlfriend about her cramps and making sure she gets a heating pad. Or offering a helping hand with cooking, when our mothers’ cuts and burns are especially visible, so that they can take a break.

The changes may seem minute, but every gesture matters. And if undertaken by many, they could lead to a world where women’s pain is readily believed, their care is fairly delivered, and their silent suffering is justly voiced.

Announcing the Winner of the People’s Choice Award!

Girls’ Globe is delighted to announce the winner of the very first People’s Choice Award in K4Health‘s annual Photoshare competition!

Congratulations go to Segawa Patrick and his team at Public Health Ambassadors Uganda (PHAU) for receiving the highest number of public votes in the category of Sexual and Reproductive Health. Today, Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017, is the perfect day to share their brilliant winning photograph.

PHAU shared the inspiration behind the photo:

“Our source of inspiration comes from the fact that many adolescent girls miss school and others drop out of school due to lack of sanitary commodities. It’s for this reason that we launched a campaign called “Ensonga” (meaning “the issue”) which aims to improve menstrual hygiene management within schools in Uganda.”

And we asked voters to tell us why they chose this image as the winner:

“Stigma around menstrual hygiene wreaks havoc on girls’ education opportunities around the world in a way that most people in higher-income countries are not aware of. I think this photograph highlights serious menstrual hygiene issues in a fun and lighthearted way (and I love the faces, colors, and composition, as well).”

“Menstruation keeps many young women from attending school each month for several reasons including lack of proper materials for personal care as well as insufficient amenities at schools. Women should not have to sacrifice education because of menstruation, so I like that this image brings awareness to the issue!”

“I think menstrual stigma is a crucial issue that needs more discussion and awareness. It is a shame that girls have to miss school and be embarrassed for going through menstruation, which is a normal part of being a female.”

“It is an original picture. It captures an unexpected moment of an important and seldom talked about issue, while at the same time transmitting a lot of joy.”

To learn more about Public Health Ambassadors and their Ensonga campaign, you can find them on Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo.

Stigma, Shame & Period Poverty

News broke earlier this year that girls in the UK are being forced to miss school because they can’t afford to buy sanitary products. Too poor to buy tampons? In this country? In 2017? Surely not.

At the heart of the story were testimonies of two teenage girls living in Leeds in northern England. During a radio interview with the BBC, the girls explained that the financial strain their families were under meant that they didn’t feel able to ask for extra money to buy sanitary products.

This revelation – while awful – isn’t really shocking when considered along with the fact that there were 25,000 visits to food banks in Leeds alone in the past year. It isn’t hard to understand why tampons might not make it high up on the priority list for a family struggling to purchase a meal.

What is shocking though, and very hard to understand, is the shame, confusion and worry these girls experienced in connection to menstruation.

One told the interviewer: “I wrapped a sock around my underwear just to stop the bleeding, cause I didn’t want to get shouted at!” I listened to her words with immense sadness. What did she think she would be shouted at for?

The second girl said: “I didn’t know what was going on with my body…I thought it was only happening to me and I didn’t know if it was happening to anyone else so I was scared.

The fact that a child in the same UK  I grew up in could get her first period and have no idea what was happening floored me. How could she have been failed so badly by so many different people? In a country with education and healthcare systems that are supposedly among the best in the world, I can see literally no excuse for any young girl to look down at her underwear one day and not understand why she sees blood there.

Why hadn’t she been taught about periods in school? Why aren’t teachers talking to girls and boys about what will soon be happening to their bodies as part of their basic education? Why were none of her peers talking about it? She can’t have been the only one worrying in silence and isolation.

Apparently, the average woman will spend 3,500 days menstruating in a lifetime. That adds up to almost ten years. A decade of periods! The thing is, I struggle to imagine doing anything else for an entire decade of my life whilst barely mentioning it. Because even in 2017, stigma keeps our mouths zipped tightly shut when it comes to periods. And every pair of closed lips intensifies the silence that so successfully oppresses women and girls all over the world.

But things are so much worse in other countries, you might say. And it’s true. Just a few months before the news of the girls in Leeds, it was reported that a 26-year-old woman died in Nepal while practicing chaupadi – the (illegal) ritual that requires menstruating women to sleep in a hut outside to avoid ‘contaminating’ the rest of the household. They think the young woman had a heart attack.

So yes, perhaps the stigma around menstruation in the UK isn’t deadly. But while there is even one single girl in this country missing out on going to school because she feels shame or pain or fear when she experiences the natural process that underpins the entire existence of the human race – then none of us have very much to be proud of.

Happily, we can change the reality with something we already do every single day. We can talk. By breaking the silence on menstruation you can choose to reject the shame that’s thrown at you – millions do not have that choice. For the sake of girls and women everywhere we must, if we’re lucky enough to have the option, refuse to be ashamed of our periods.

5 Ways to Celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day 2017: 
  1. Donate sanitary products to your nearest food bank
  2. Follow activists like Kiran Gandhi
  3. Vote for your favourite #PeriodEmoji 
  4. Talk openly – and not just with your closest circle of girlfriends. Practice saying “I’m on my period”, rather than one of the many (ridiculous) euphemisms we use instead.
  5. Donate money or sanitary products to organizations like The Homeless Period or Bloody Good Period

5 Reasons Why I am Opting for Reusable Sanitary Towels

Post written by Helen Patricia Amutuhaire, Content Developer, Reach A Hand, Uganda

I have finally found a solution to my menstrual challenges and it took me a total of 15 minutes. It happened at the Science Cafe hosted by the Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU) and supported by Reach A Hand, Uganda and UNFPA Uganda.

Since 2015, I have been suffering from burns every month due to the use of disposable sanitary pads (towels). Perhaps it’s because my flow has reduced recently or because I am older now (23), or perhaps it’s a reaction to the gel used in the pads.

Whatever the reason, the burns put me through hell because the pain is unbearable. The option of tampons is uncomfortable for me, but I still needed to use something. I am still young…these periods are here for a while!

The solution became clear as we discussed menstrual hygiene at the Science Cafe. I have been hearing about reusable pads for years now but like a lot of my girlfriends, I was convinced that they are not my kind of thing.  When AFRIpads explained how they actually work, I put aside the myths and hearsay and gave them a go.

Let me tell you the about magic of these pads and why you should try them out too:

  • Comfy and tender on the skin

When it comes to being cozy, the reusable pad has got it all. They are velvet-soft and smooth and the only sanitary towel with 100% certainty of not burning no matter how heavy the blood flow or how long the pad is worn. This is because they are made of cloth and not synthetic gels.

  • Easy on the pocket

Let’s do the math. A pack of 8 sanitary pads costs UGX 3500, an equivalent of $1. Normally a woman uses one and a half or two packs a month which is UGX 7000 – roughly $2. For those whose preference is tampons, a regular pack of 8 will set you back UGX 7000 ($2) or UGX 16000 ($5) for a maxi pack. Annually, that makes UGX 72,000 ($21) for sanitary pads, 84,000($24) for regular tampons or 192,000 ($54) for maxi packs of tampons. Now imagine a household with a mother and three daughters…you get the idea. On the flip side, a pack of 3 reusable sanitary pads is UGX 7000. That’s $2 for an entire year!

  • Eco-friendly

Anything that is environmental friendly has got my support. To handle my period and still be able to help preserve the environment is reason enough to entice me to use this innovation. Yes – use the reusable pads and be the hero who preserves her environment.

  • Effective

We have all experienced the dreaded nights when you have to wake up to change a pad because your flow is heavy. Did you know that Afripads reusable pads come with a night pad which is designed to last longer while you sleep? No more losing sleep over changing a pad in the middle of the night.

  • Secure

These pads have a liquid proof line on the back side which prevents the blood from leaking. The pads able to literally take away all of a girl’s menstrual worries one by one (except the cramps…that would be too good to be true). These pads have wings with toggles to secure them on your underwear so there’s no worry of the pad slipping off. If I’m at work and I need to change my pad, it comes with a clever pouch specifically designed to keep the used pad until I get home to wash it.

Cover photo credit: Reach A Hand, Uganda