MENSTRUATION

Busting myths: Periods are natural and beautiful

Girls made to believe they are dirty, menstruation considered a taboo, sin.

In Summary
  • Faith says her period came a little early and she was told that it was probably because of overeating.
  • Menstruating women are seen as dirty, untouchable or disgraceful.
Girls in West Pokot after they received their donations during International Day of the Girl Child celebrations, 2020, in Chepnyal, Sook, West Pokot county.
Girls in West Pokot after they received their donations during International Day of the Girl Child celebrations, 2020, in Chepnyal, Sook, West Pokot county.
Image: COURTESY

The journey to Chepnyal, Sook, West Pokot county, involves nearly two hours on a dirt road, cramped in the backseat of the vehicle with four other people.

The girls begin streaming into the meeting hall an hour and a half after we arrive. The chief informs us they are in church and cannot be interrupted.

An hour after they begin to arrive, the hall is almost full with about 300 girls hoping to receive the donations. 

 

Nancy (not her real name) is in her mid-twenties and is currently studying nursing at college. She is part of the team of trainers that has been allocated time to speak to the girls on the menstrual cycle. 

To help her illustrate is a hand-drawn image of the female reproductive system stuck on the wall behind her. 

"I will be talking to you about what happens so that you can receive your monthly periods," she begins. 

Nancy engages the girls in a brief question and answers session about the symptoms they experience before and after they receive their periods before she begins to explain the process. 

Using the image behind her, Nancy informs the girls that every month, one of their ovaries bursts, and the blood then moves up the fallopian tube before reaching the uterus. 

"After it gets here, it comes out of your vagina as period blood, now I will do an illustration with an egg to help you understand better," she said. 

Nancy then asks one of the girls to come to the podium and help her break an egg then drain it into a cup. "That's what happens to your ovaries monthly."

 

MISLEADING PERIOD

However, according to Mayo Clinic, the menstrual cycle is the monthly series of changes a woman's body goes through in preparation for the possibility of pregnancy.

Girls have been made to believe if they look at people during their periods they will make them sick, if they cook or touch food it will rot and if they swim, sharks will attack them. 

Each month, one of the ovaries releases an egg, a process called ovulation. At the same time, hormonal changes prepare the uterus for pregnancy.

If ovulation takes place and the egg isn't fertilised, the lining of the uterus sheds through the vagina. This is the menstrual period.

Faith says her period came a little early and she was told that it was probably because of overeating.

"I had been told that periods were a sin and when they came early it meant that one was eating too much. Or if you are an early developer, it is assumed that you were 'playing' with boys too much," she says. 

Just before Ruth, 25, received her periods in primary school, one of her friends announced during lunch break that she had received hers the previous night. 

"She told us that she had woken up and seen blood on her bedsheets and her mom had given her a pad and told her when to change them," she says.

For Ruth, that afternoon discussion made her realise that just how little she knew about periods or pads. 

"I had actually never seen a pad before because I am the firstborn and my sisters are younger than me," she says. "I remember we asked all sorts of questions about whether she was feeling pain 'there' and how she felt wearing the pad."

Then 14, Ruth was fascinated that her classmate did not feel any pain in her genitalia. 

"I had been told that because it was blood coming out, you would feel pain in your vagina, and also if you sneezed, all the blood would come out at once," she says. "Another issue was that everybody could smell the pad when you wear it so there was paranoia associated with wearing them in public."

In high school, Ruth had her first experience with tampons and was surprised to find out that once again, she had been misinformed. 

"I had been told that tampons would break my virginity and with the stigma associated with girls who were not virgins, I had sworn to keep off them," she says.

"I had also been told that when you wear a tampon, it just prevents the blood from coming out and when you remove it, you have to sit at the toilet and let all the blood come out."

Ironically, she found the tampons she had been avoiding more comfortable than the sanitary pads. 

"I was constantly messing my clothes with pads and sometimes would get rashes using certain brands, I wish I had been given the tampon option from the onset because the whole experience had really made me hate my periods," she says. 

ISOLATED AND shunned 

In May, UN Women released an infographic calling for an end to period stigma. The organisation said that in some parts of the world, menstruating women are seen as dirty, untouchable or disgraceful.

Out of fear of discrimination, because the monthly cycles are considered taboo, women and girls have come up with code names to refer to their periods such as Aunt Flo, Code Red, bloody Mary, lady business, girl flu, or the curse.

Girls have been made to believe if they look at people during their periods they will make them sick, if they cook or touch food it will rot and if they swim, sharks will attack them. 

"Because of social and cultural norms, they are misinformed and made to believe such myths," said the UN Women, a global champion for gender equality.

Out of fear of discrimination, because the monthly cycles are considered taboo, women and girls have come up with code names to refer to their periods such as Aunt Flo, Code Red, bloody Mary, lady business, girl flu, or the curse. 

A lack of financial support or access to safe sanitary products prompts some girls to use newspapers, toilet paper, plastic bags, socks, clothes, or rags. 

Data from the Ministry of Education indicate that a girl who is absent from school for four days in 28 days loses 13 learning days, equivalent to two weeks of learning in every school term.

In an academic year of nine months, a girl loses 39 learning days, equivalent to six weeks of learning time. A girl in primary school between grades 6 and 8 loses 18 learning weeks out of 108 weeks.

Within the four years of high school, a girl can lose 156 learning days, equivalent to almost 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of learning. The average time women menstruate during a single cycle is between three and five days and they spend an average of six years menstruating in their lifetime. 

Data show that worldwide, 1.25 billion women and girls have no access to safe, private toilet facilities. 

Additionally, the Wash joint monitoring programme report by WHO and Unicef found that only 59 per cent of Kenyans have access to basic water services and only 29 per cent to sanitary services.

FREEING THE FLOW 

Speaking to the Star, Nekesa Kalama, Project Manager at Extra Mile for Her Initiative, a lobby that teaches period positivity, said girls and women now needed more long-lasting and sustainable solutions to completely eradicate period poverty.

"We have to start shifting from the commonly used pads and start investing in reusable cloth pads or alternatives like menstrual cups which can last them anywhere between five and 10 years," she said.

Extra Mile Initiative was in charge of educating and donating sanitary towels to girls in Sook during the International Day of the Girl Child. 

"We have been running a funds drive for the whole month of September and we managed to raise over Sh30,000 through word of mouth and social media campaigns," she says.

Kalama says they collaborated with Kenya Feminists Coven and GoGirl Initiative who also deal with menstrual hygiene and women's rights.

"We came with a group of trainers to talk on menstrual hygiene, period positivity and encourage the girls to embrace what makes them human," she said.

"Debunking myths and misconceptions on periods is also something we are keen on doing because if you notice a lot of the girls can barely say they are on their periods because they think it is shameful. Periods are natural and beautiful."

Mt Kenya Salvation Army Primary School pupils with sanitary towels provided by the Nyeri government.
Mt Kenya Salvation Army Primary School pupils with sanitary towels provided by the Nyeri government.
Image: FILE