Talking Frankly: Vaginas & Menstrual Hygiene

I have an insatiable urge to persuade my sisters around the world to tear off shame with all their strength. I yearn to tell them to deny society the privilege of silencing us when when we want to talk about things that matter. Things like vaginas and menstruation.

Here is the real deal.

We can crush the walls erected around us in the name of culture simply by talking about the well-being of our vaginas. During menstruation, things can get a little bit messy down there, and so you need proper sanitary wear to maintain freshness and hygiene.

It’s absurd that around the world, many are still found wanting of these necessities. Can you imagine the trauma women have to go through? There is a dire need to talk about vaginal health and hygiene during menstruation. It’s only by doing so that we will terminate the silence and the myths.

The vagina is a part of the body which must be hidden from view. It’s not something a woman can easily speak about – that’s how we are socialized. Therefore, over the years, generations have been enduring menstruation in silence and shame, and without proper sanitary wear.

But has the silence been beneficial? Certainly not. Our misery around menstruation is utter, lonely and complete.

This is why I plead with my Zimbabwean government – and other governments across the globe that have remained ignorant – to prioritize menstrual hygiene.

In Zimbabwe, the provision of free sanitary products – especially in rural and marginalized areas where women and girls live in poverty – should be a central focus.

Vaginas are naturally moist. This means that women without access to safe sanitary products during menstruation become at risk of disease and infection. I wonder, then, about the vaginal health of girls and women who are forced for whatever reason to use cow dung, leaves or grass?

This seems like a good moment to say that if it has ever crossed your mind that talking about the hygiene of vaginas during menstruation is disgusting, wait! What’s really disgusting is the fact that our governments are able to provide free condoms of all shapes and sizes, but have the audacity to reiterate that they can’t afford to provide free sanitary products.

Menstruation is not a choice.

You can’t wake up one day and decide not to have your period. It will happen whether you like it or not, and whether you’re equipped to deal with it or not.

Refusing to prioritize menstrual hygiene is a sure-fire way to further perpetuate gender inequality. In many parts of the world, women and girls constitute a larger percentage of those who are economically dependent. Many simply cannot afford the cost of sanitary wear throughout their menstruating years. Denying access to basic menstrual hygiene products impedes on individuals’ well-being as equal human beings.

The scales of imbalance need to be tilted and menstrual hygiene must be recognized as a priority in order to do so.

The girls and women using cow dung, leaves or grass during menstruation are, in most cases, predominantly poor, geographically and socially isolated from the rest of the world and lacking in political power. It is important for charitable organizations, advocacy campaigns and governments to come up with interventions that are compatible with their circumstances. A ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.

Although some of Zimbabwe’s most marginalized communities are still conservative, I can confidently argue that within these communities there are many individuals who are eager for change. They want it so badly, but they just need that push of support to get the work done.

I firmly believe that ending the silence and shame surrounding menstruation is possible, one community at a time.

Along with universal access to products, what if women could be empowered with knowledge to make simple handmade sanitary pads using low cost materials? I think it would be ground breaking.

The problem of unhygienic menstruation can be solved if practical interventions are executed well and the cultural taboos are challenged. Do you agree? I’d love to hear your perspective.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

?Check out 
Girls’ Globe’s Menstrual Hygiene Day Facebook Live, where we challenged taboos and stigma by busting common myths around menstruation?

The Importance of Menstrual Health Education

Lack of education about menstruation is one of the many barriers to achieving adequate menstrual hygiene worldwide.

Earlier this year, England’s Department of Education released new guidelines for sex and health education in the school curriculum.

The guidelines include adding menstrual health education for girls and boys in primary schools. This is the first change in the sex and relationship education guidelines since 2000, after recognition by the government that the curriculum was “outdated.”

The new guidelines also include important information on female genital mutilation (FGM) – with focus on the illegality of the practice and support networks available for those affected. This information will be taught in secondary schools, where sex education is mandatory in England.

For all ages, the new guidelines include education on mental health – such as teaching students how to identify symptoms of anxiety in their peers. Students will also explore the risks associated with sexting.

A 2018 report by Plan International UK highlighted the experience of British girls with menstruation, including their existing knowledge of periods. Girls interviewed in focus groups used several negative words to describe their periods, such as “painful,” “uncomfortable” and “inconvenient.” To describe their first periods, girls also used negative expressions like “scarred,” “embarrassed,” “unprepared” and “I thought I was going to die.”

Each country in the UK – England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – has its own guidelines for menstrual health education. This meant that not all girls and young women featured in the report had the same experience with learning about menstruation in school.

A 2017 survey found that 1 in 7 girls and young women in the UK didn’t know what was happening when they got their first period. 1 in 4 stated that they felt unprepared for the beginning of menstruation.

Even girls who reported having learned about periods in school mentioned that their education focused solely only on the biology of the menstrual cycle. Lessons left out important information about their bodies’ anatomy and the use of sanitary products.

This lack of menstrual education and support doesn’t even take into consideration the added information needed on menstruation as it relates to people who are transgender, intersex, or non-binary.

Both the Plan International UK report and the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day initiative highlight the fact that most conversations about menstruation are heavily gendered. Current education assumes that all who menstruate identify as women and have typically ‘female’ experiences of their periods.

One way to be more inclusive in conversations about periods is to include non-gendered language. For example, we can say “menstrual products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”

Providing young people with comprehensive menstrual and sexual education will not solve all the problems related to menstruation in the world.

It won’t, for example, address issues such as lack of access to sanitary products due to financial difficulties. It is, however, a good place to begin. Education is needed so that no young person feels scared of dying when they have their first period.

?Read more menstruation posts on girlsglobe.org?

Obstetric Fistula is a Physical & Mental Health Priority

“It’s been three years now, I can’t wear underwear, urine is always leaking. I have developed sores on my genitals that aren’t healing because of the moisture. I dread going out in public.

The last time I went to a gathering, people distanced themselves from me because of the bad smell. I repelled them. I’m confined to this house so I can bathe each time I soil myself. My entire family believes I was cursed, they say no one has ever had a disease like mine before.”

Nyaradzai is a 19-year-old living in my community in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe. She is one of many women suffering from obstetric fistula. 

Like many others, Nyaradzai has been unaware that hers is a condition that needs medical attention. She tells me her story:

“Three years ago, I dropped out of school. I was pregnant. My parents chased me from my home, so I went to stay at my boyfriend’s house. He was still in high school too, but his parents accepted me. I stayed there for six months. 

My baby died while I was in labour. It took me 6 hours to get to the nearest clinic – I was walking because my in-laws couldn’t afford to hire an ambulance to take me there. When I arrived, the nurses ignored me. In fact, they scolded me for getting pregnant at such a tender age. I was 16 at the time. While I was in labor, I passed out. I can’t recall what happened, but when I gained consciousness, I was in so much pain.

When my in-laws heard that I had delivered a stillborn baby, they called me a witch and returned me to my parents’ house. My problems started a few days later.

At first, I thought I just wasn’t making it to the toilet in time, but I was also wetting the bed at night. Now when I go to sleep I take a cloth and place it between my legs and put a plastic sheet underneath me so I won’t wet the bed. I can’t wear underwear because of the sores on my genitals.”

Nyaradzai’s story could be the story of many women living with fistula in Zimbabwe.

Fistula is a silent condition, and as a result many women are suffering in silence. Huge numbers of people are not aware of what it is or what it means for women.

A fistula is a passage or hole that has formed between two organs. Obstetric fistula is an abnormal opening that develops between the birth canal and the urinary tract. It is the primary type of fistula affecting women in developing countries.

Obstetric fistula is caused by lack of access to quality obstetric care, particularly prolonged and obstructed labour without treatment. Young girls can be at high risk, as their birth canals are still narrow. The head of the baby causes a tear between the birth canal and the bladder or rectum which, if not surgically repaired, leaves women incontinent.

2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Arab region, and Latin America and the Caribbean are living with fistula. 

As Nyaradzai has experienced, the social isolation associated with physical symptoms can have significant mental health consequences. Obstetric fistula is almost entirely preventable, and its prevalence in the world is a sign that health systems are failing women.

I share Nyaradzai’s story today, on International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, to try to break the silence.  

It is important that we talk about fistula, teach communities about it and encourage women to help one another through education, empowerment and delaying marriage and child bearing.

Read more on girlsglobe.org and join the conversation online using #EndFistula.

The Pattern of Domestic Violence

Like every tsunami, it starts small. A slap here, a hit there. Nothing to worry about. He apologizes, says it will never happen again.

But it does.

It happens again. Harder this time, perhaps a punch or two. It becomes a pattern.

Beat, repent, repeat.

The physical abuse.

The pattern.

OR

It is completely inconspicuous. Almost invisible to the outside world and sometimes, to the victim, too. Charming dominance turns into irrational jealousy and possessiveness. Endearing neediness becomes suffocating. You find yourself trying to stay out for as long as you can. You know it’s coming.

The emotional abuse.

The pattern.

According to the World Health Organization, almost one third of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.

Not everyone has the courage to fight back against abuse and violence. It’s not simply about being ‘brave’ – it becomes almost impossible to have courage if you don’t have a voice. Sometimes, even those who do are stifled by the fear of humiliation and social stigma surrounding gender-based violence.

Not everyone has a loving family or friends to fall back on. Not everyone can simply wake up one day, decide they have had enough, and leave. It’s not that easy, oh how I wish it was, but it isn’t.

Although, it’s also not impossible.

You might wonder, why must they stay? Is it the children? Or the familiarity? Or worst of all, the tainted love? It’s generally an amalgamation of all of these reasons along with many more. Of course, none of them can ever justify the destruction of lives, hearts, and a place that now detestably resembles home but is far, far from it.

The more you take, the less you can give to yourself or those you love. You deserve a safe environment. Children deserve a safe environment.

Make a safety plan. You can break the pattern and protect yourself and others. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

“Break the pattern before it breaks you.” – Colleen Hoover, It Ends With Us

Read more on Girls’ Globe