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?

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.

Zimbabwe is Violating Human Rights

“We are fine. We are safe”.

My brother’s words over the phone, following a government-sanctioned internet shutdown in my home country, sounded like music to my ears.

On Tuesday 15 January, Zimbabwe experienced a complete internet black-out ordered by the government. Millions of Zimbabwean citizens lost contact with the outside world, some relying on virtual private networks (VPNs) to share information regarding the situation inside the country.

I was one of many Zimbabweans living outside the country feeling confused and panicked, no longer able to get in touch with family, friends and loved ones. I rushed to Twitter to stay updated on what was occurring back home.

My Twitter feed painted a very sombre picture. On Saturday night – prior to the blackout – Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa held a press conference to announce a 150% increase in the price of fuel. Many Zimbabweans were angered and upset.

Much of the population has been struggling with socio-economic hardships from severe cash shortages, fuel shortages, high unemployment rates and dilapidated infrastructures.

A national strike was called for by several trade unions and activists, such as Pastor Evan Mawarire. Unfortunately, the protest strike on Monday was marred by violence against protestors by police and military forces.

It is believed that incidences of looting and vandalism by protestors led to a crackdown by the forces. This resulted in what is estimated to be 12 deaths, and 100 (possibly more) cases of assault on civilians.

Hundreds were arrested following these events. In addition, there has been reports of home invasions and abductions in Harare. The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, an NGO, says they attended to more than 172 patients in the aftermath of last Tuesday afternoon. They also confirmed human rights violations had been committed. At least 844 human rights violations have been recorded by The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.

Businesses, schools and industries have been affected by the internet block, causing a further strain on what was already fragile. However, the biggest impact of the internet shutdown has been the hinderance of the nation’s access to information and ability to express themselves – a direct infringement of their human rights. The United Nations states that internet access is a basic human right that enables individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Internet service and social media access has remained unreliable since then. On Wednesday, I was finally able to talk to my family and close friends to check on their wellbeing. My heart was relieved that all of them were safe, but remaining at home as a precaution.

The pain is not over. Many families have lost children, breadwinners, parents during this period of violence and chaos. Many young people continue to exist with no clear direction of what lies ahead, feeling robbed of a future, uncertain of whether they will be able to work, go to school or make ends meet in 2019.

Mental health and physical health is declining for many as their lives are filled with depression, anxiety and poor access to treatment. Others fear for their safety, no longer feeling safe in their country and living in exile – such as Thandekile Moyo who fled after being vocal against the government.

Most tragic of all is that lives have been taken, like that of Kelvin Tinashe Choto, whose murdered body was pictured lying on a police station reception counter.

It is deeply important to me to share what has been happening in my home country of Zimbabwe. We need the international community to be aware of the human rights violations and unjust incidences taking place.

Our voices need to be heard in this time as we cry for help. 

Note: the author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous, as there are mounting concerns over the safety of those speaking out on the current situation within Zimbabwe.

Eradicating Violence – My Community’s Story

When it comes to the fight against violence against women and girls, it’s quite safe to say that in my community we haven’t won yet. However, we are making progress, and this progress is due to the dedication of Village Health Workers (VHW).

Aside from offering health care, VHWs are instrumental in advocating for the abolishment of violence against women. I understand that women the world over face violence in so many forms, and that the problems women in my community are facing are mirrored in challenges women face globally.

It’s how we’re tackling gender-based violence in my community that makes us unique.

Royden-Nyabira in Mashonaland West province is located 50km from the capital city of Zimbabwe – Harare. We do not have a dedicated organization in my community working to end GBV, however, that has not incapacitated us from tackling the issue.

Village Health Workers are the ones who have taken up the advocacy as well the policing role in the fight to eliminate violence against women. VHWs act as the eyes and ears of the village and work with law enforcement agents and the Ministry of Health – which has resulted in a sizeable number of cases of GBV being reported.

There are still a lot of men who are resistant to change and continue resorting to violence as a means of solving family disputes. However, we do not tire because this is a fight which we must win. My community’s strategy has always been  simple and realistic – VHWs educate community members through conversation and discussion.

It’s perfect for us because there is room for everyone to interact and ask questions, while VHWs have the opportunity to answer and clarify things. There is a lot of information about GBV available online, but people in my community are very poor and cannot afford to buy data to access information on the internet.

By circulating information through word of mouth everyone has the opportunity to learn – even those who can’t read or write or access the internet – and so the possibility of leaving anyone behind is reduced.

Utilisation of what we have available is what makes us a unique community. Oral education has had a positive impact so far, and the community’s attitudes to GBV has changed – as evidenced by the reduction of GBV cases. Our Village Health Worker’s commitment to ending GBV has not been in vain.

On top of everything else, VHWs voluntarily conduct a door-to-door operation to engage with residents. This has helped victims of violence to come out of their silence and tell their stories in safety. The method itself has helped build trust between the health worker and the victim because without trust it’s difficult to convince victims to share their stories.

VHWs work on voluntary basis and are very committed. Their opinion on gender based violence is that it is an abuse of human rights and a health care emergency, which means that when reacting to reported cases of violence, they treat no case as an afterthought.

This door-to-door process is time-consuming but it is effective, as evidenced by the community’s growing understanding of what GBV is and the implications it has on the well-being of victims and the community as a whole. In my community, we believe everyone has a role to play in ending gender-based violence. If we can’t do it for the present then surely we have to do it for our future generations.

I believe that if people are willing and committed to the fight to end violence against women, we can and will be successful. We can and will reach Goal 5.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals so that by 2030, there will be elimination of all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

This is a very ambitious target, but it’s achievable if everyone joins in.