I was a sweet, lovable and inquisitive child...If I may say so myself. I once asked my mother why my brother had fuller jeans in front than I did. I cannot remember her exact response, but I know it left me with even more questions on the topic.
It would be a little white lie to pretend that I was not expecting menarche. When I was 7, I saw my aunty throw her menstruating rags into a bowl of clean water, which immediately turned crimson red! Of course, I asked questions and I was excited to learn that on one special day, I too would see RED.
Fast forward to when I was 10. I was enrolled at an all girls' secondary school in an urban city and menstruation was the trending topic. There were conversations and heated debates in the classrooms and dormitories about who we guessed had "started" or not. While unpacking our luggage in the dormitory, the sight of a pack or two of sanitary towels in any girl's box elicited giggles and excitement. I secretly envied the few girls who gathered in corners and spoke in hushed tones about their menstrual cramps and the quality of various brands of sanitary towels. These circles were sacred and those of us who still awaited the August visitor were automatically banned from the gathering of "women". The day one of the privileged menstruating girls stained her school skirt, the solidarity was puzzling. Shielding her "shame" and preserving her secret was as important a mission as protecting national intelligence.
For me, it finally came. I had just turned 11 and the summer vacation was at its peak. During opening prayers at a Christian fellowship centre in the neighbourhood, I felt pressure in my lower abdomen. This was soon followed by an uncomfortable wetness in my panties. I knew it was it!
I scurried home and went straight into the toilet to check my panties for confirmation before summoning my mother. Her joy was only comparable to the kind she had exhibited when I clinched the first position in my third year of Primary School. She said to me "You are now a woman" and instructed me to take a cool bath and change my underwear. When I came back, she opened her box of old wrappers and briskly tore one of them into several pieces. Since there was no sanitary towel at home, I had to make do with the little pieces of cloth for a while. The rags felt uncomfortable and too heavy to hold in my panties. Worse still, the pressure in my lower abdomen quickly became excruciating pain. My mother asked me to bear the pain quietly. No one else could know about it, she said.
On the brighter side, I was a star at home that week. My mother gave me the biggest piece of chicken every day and when my brother asked questions, he was tersely told that I had become a woman. He was not to play with me too much or let any boy come near me. There was a noticeable change in my dad's attitude towards me. When I eventually overheard him ask my mum (in a hushed tone) if it was not too early for me to menstruate at 11, my embarrassment knew no bounds.
Today, things have not changed much. The silence about menstruation still lingers. Once, I found one of the adolescent girls I work with, holding her belly and writhing in pain. It took up to 15 minutes to convince her that it was okay to admit that she was experiencing menstrual cramps.
My girls rights advocacy NGO in Nigeria "Girl Pride Circle" has launched the "Cool Period Movement" - a girl-led campaign, which is rebranding menstruation as a healthy, natural and cool biological process which girls should be proud of. In collaboration with some amazing young women in Qatar, my organization is providinga school term's worth of ecofriendly and safe sanitary towels for 33 underprivileged adolescent girls in Nigeria,to commemorate the 2017 World Menstrual Hygiene Day. We are also exploring innovative advocacy strategies to amplify our voices on the crucial links between adequate WASH facilities and girls education in Nigeria.
More than ever, there isa nagging need to empower girls with accurate knowledge about menstruation in safe spaces, where they can broach every unspoken issue and break down age-long myths.This would enable them manage their periods better and feel more comfortable in their own skins - as girls who are proud of their girlhood and are equippedto raise their communities on their empowered shoulders.