Menstruation is one of those small secret words that we talked, about in silent corners and behind closed doors, because of the shame and stigma associated with the blood flow, that every young woman is bound to experience in her lifetime.
“Menstruation for me was a dirty secret. The first day I spotted blood in my nicker, I even feared to share with my mother, because I thought it was not normal, it was one of those embarrassing moments that I preferred to keep stacked in my secret world,” said Am cheeky (not real names), a 15-year-old girl, at a secondary school in Uganda.
Amocheeky’s confession is one that is shared by many young girls especially in the rural parts of the country.
“By the way, the first time I saw blood in my pantie, I was very scared. I had just woken up and ready for school but as soon as spotted blood on my uniform I faked an illness and spent the whole day in bed afraid to tell my sister about what I had seen.”
Why were you scared? I asked
“Because we were told that anything related to my reproductive health is a private matter to me and no one else.” She replied.
“Yes, aunty, one time at the assembly hall at school, a teacher gathered all the girls and shared with us a lot of information about the girl’s private parts. But one statement that shared me into shivers that day is when she said that “any girl who allows anyone to peep in her pantie would be engulfed by fire.”
So issues of sexual reproductive health for girls is shrouded in a lot of mystery that keep girls locked out of vital information that would help them make informed decisions.
A recent study conducted by Femme International found out a critical lack of menstrual and reproductive health education in Tanzania.
This according to the study, resulting in the perpetuation of harmful taboos and myths, and encouraging a feeling of shame and resulting significant lack of participation in everyday activities.
While Menstruation is a normal biological process, the subject would rather not pop in any conversation between women and girls especially in the presence of men.
Amocheeky admits that while she had never missed school, her periods always bring her an urge to remain at home because the school she attended lacked proper water and sanitation facilities that are critical for menstrual hygiene.
“One day my periods started while I was in the class and unknown to me I stood up to answer a question, it is then that I had giggles from a group of boys seated right behind me,” Amocheeky explains.
“I always carried a piece of cloth in my bag because I could not afford a proper sanitary pad and since this was a small secret between me and my body, there is no way mummy could have known that I needed pads,” she adds
“Then a small boy passed on a small chit to my desk. I slowly opened the chit and the words written on it were as scary as a thunderbolt.
‘You have a red map on your dress and we wonder what country does that map point to? Meaning I had stained my uniform.
I have never felt so embarrassed like I did that moment. I feared to share this with the teacher because he was a man and I was scared of the double embarrassment from my classmates and now a teacher.
So I slowly sneaked out of the classroom, I needed a safe place, so I can wear my pad, wash my mapped (stained) uniform and return to class.
But there was no such space at school, so rather than head back to class, I sneaked out of school through an escape route that was only known to latecomers and the bad boys and girls at school.
I was neither a latecomer, nor a bad girl but on this day, my periods were taking me through this route. I went straight home and never returned to school until the blood flow stopped,” says Amocheeky.
According to Sarah Gabrielsson; Assistant professor from LUCSUS Sweden, “many girls start their periods without any information and male learn about menstruation in school.”
Menstrual troubles for young girls like Amocheeky have been doubled by the lack of affordable sanitary towels.
“The first time I ever saw pads in a pack was at Mama Tendonia’s shop in Kasubi, a city suburb when I went for a school holiday at my Aunt’s place.”
“The package was very attractive and when I asked the shopkeeper to tell me more about the package, she whispered in my ears, shhhhh…that’s not for you young girl.
But my curiosity could not allow me to leave that question unanswered.
The next day I was sent to buy soap from Mama Tendonia’s shop, I asked her again to tell me what was in that white small package laced with yellow and blue beautiful flowers.
This time around she was kind enough. She beckoned me behind her counter and told me; “What you see here contains bread for big women, you are not yet big and this is not bread for you.”
I later found out that these were actually sanitary pads.
There is little or no information given to young girls to prepare them to embrace menstruation as one of the periods that require proper sanitation and hygiene.
Research on low-cost sanitary pads carried out in South Africa found out that 30 per cent of the girls were missing out on school during menstruation.
The study concluded that the girls who missed out on school during menstruation were mainly from poorer communities where access to sanitary pads is difficult.
Amocheeky says rather than give girls misleading information, it is important for parents, school headteachers, and the government to invest in menstrual education and hygiene.
Already, some NGO’s have taken a step in prioritizing menstrual hygiene. An official from the Tanzanian Ministry of Health says she wants to make sure that there should be a special room for girls to be used during menstruation as well as getting water and menstrual tools.
In addition, the Government has exempted menstrual towel and pads from taxes, so that girls like Amocheeky can afford proper sanitary pads and abandon the rudimentary clothes and other tools that put them at risk.