It's time for action: Destigmatise my menses

Not only do we not speak openly about periods, we have conjured all sorts of tragic myths and taboos

In Summary

• On any given day, more than 800 million girls between 15-49 years are menstruating yet the stigma persists.

• So much so that we need to camouflage reference to it by use of euphemisms

To be a woman around the world is to experience wanton stigma for a naturally occurring situation-menstruation.

On any given day, more than 800 million girls between 15-49 years are menstruating yet the stigma persists. So much so that we need to camouflage reference to it by use of euphemisms such as Code red, bloody Mary, Aunty Flo, Entertaining the General, Steak week, Red robot, time of the month amongst many others.

In a tampax TV commercial, Friends sitcom star Courtney Cox said, “I am the first to say the word ‘period’ on television”. The word was unspoken until 1985.”

Period advertising — an important source of information for many people — has largely depicted periods as something that should be kept secret or as a dirty and clumsy time in a girl’s life and of course the blue ink that is used to denote blood. This suggests period blood is too gory to be shown on TV. Ladies, if your period is blue, please run to the ER!

Not only do we not speak openly about periods, we have also conjured all sorts of tragic myths and cultural taboos. In India and Bali, women are believed to be unclean while menstruating, thus not allowed into ‘clean places’ such as temples.

In Poland, the belief is that having sex with your partner can kill them. In Philippines, it’s believed washing your face with your first period blood will clear your skin, while in Argentina you can’t dare make whipped cream while you menstruate lest it curdles. And in Malaysia, you need to wash your pads before throwing them out otherwise ghosts will come to haunt you. Preposterous!

About a week ago, I requested my nanny to oil my itchy scalp. As she did so, she told me that my hairdresser must have been on her period when she plaited my hair-hence the itching. I laughed at that ridiculous statement only to realise how dead serious she was.

Women still think their period makes them unclean and unworthy. We may think the euphemisms and myths surrounding menstruation are harmless, the reality though is that they are not. If we can’t address an issue by its name, how will we prioritise it enough to formulate policies around it and allocate resources for it?

Silence around menstruation disempowers attempts to tackle it as a development issue. When girls drop out of school due to their menses or fall ill because of using unsanitary menstrual products, it not only affects them but also society.

Menstrual health management is not a trivial thing period champions harp on about: It is a rights-based issue. Every girl in Kenya has the right to access and complete education, the right to access water and sanitation, the right to access sanitary menstrual products and the right to access healthcare.

Neville Okwaro, a male menstrual health management trainer, aptly states that he is the product of a missed period. The MHM space desperately needs the male voice through the many roles they play-peer, teacher, father, husband, brother, uncle and policymaker.

In the school set up, data reveals that boys’ attitudes to menstruation and menstrual hygiene ranges from disinterested to extremely negative. It also reveals male teachers may not be adequately sensitised to girls’ needs and therefore, may not allow girls to visit the toilets, and may misinterpret girls’ lack of participation in class during menstruation. Two years ago, I dared male employees at Amnesty International Kenya to wear red lipstick, post the pictures on social media in solidarity with women across the globe as we commemorated menstrual hygiene day. It was an incredulous sight but one of significant importance.

Feminist and author Gloria Steinem famously said if magically men could menstruate, menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event — they would brag about how long and how much! Getting men to menstruate is clearly never going to happen but what is within our grasp is the urgency required to dismantle the shame, silence and stigma around menstruation.

Walk up to the counter and buy your menstrual products with pride and while you’re at it, don’t forget to buy some for your domestic help or female guard. Normalise having conversations about menstruation with friends, family and colleagues. Teach your daughter and your son, girls and boys about menstruation. Engage your elected representatives on the access to quality menstrual products for girls, access to water and sanitation especially in low-income areas and ample budgetary allocation towards MHM.

As we celebrate #MHDay2021 #ItsTimeForAction, let us destigmatise menstruation!

The writer is the communications manager, Amnesty International Kenya