Sisters, I invite you to close your eyes and remember your first menstrual cycle. What were your immediate thoughts and reactions? Now when your cycle comes, how do you welcome it?
When I first saw blood on my panties, I almost collapsed! It was disastrous, and being hypochondriac didn’t help. I was also overcome with fear of having contracted a shameful illness, one of blood leaking out my vagina, that part of my body associated with sinful activities that is what my circumstances made me think. Growing up, I remembered an aunt who had averted most of my nosebleeds by applying Vaseline to moisten nasal membranes.
My 9 year-old self-believed my vagina needed to be moistened, having dried up with blisters due to the dry, hot season. I thought I had contracted a disease, which I was successful in hiding for 3 months. It wasn’t until I stained my favorite light green shorts and had to stop playing with my friends to clean it off, that I realized that I had a serious issue.
I really needed to raise the horror with my elders. Deep in me, I knew that I didn’t do anything wrong, yet I was nervous when I faced my aunt.
“Tantine, I really don’t know what is happening to me, but I am heavily bleeding”…
“There. I have tried your trick with Vaseline and it is not working.”
“I swear Tantine, I swear, I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The memory is still fresh in my mind. I was waiting to be punished, and though I didn’t care much if I was reprimanded, the health risk worried me. My aunt was surprised by the early menstrual periodbut, to my relief, she declared me a woman and gave some protocols to follow when attending to one’s cycle. Then she cautioned me to be careful around males as I was now susceptible to pregnancy.
It was encouraging that I wasn’t in trouble but I was still unsure about the ‘woman’ part of her teachings and warnings.
For a long time, I hated my periods. I did not embrace them till we started learning about menstruation at school and some of my friends started theirs. Then I had a sense of belonging. My period had differentiated me from my brothers, but I realized periods were a part of me. Thinking about my journey with my menstrual cycle, I am grateful to have grown to appreciate it. Now, I even brag when I have it. I feel more feminine and alive regardless of horrible cramps.
Why am I telling you about my personal journey? Because there are girls out there who go through serious hardships during their cycles. Collective social advocacy and change through outreach programs, access to sanitary supplies have been positive and brought some dignity to many young women. Pads are distributed in schools to decrease girls’ absenteeism from school. Cups, reusable pads, sponges and other innovative products are designed to provide us with comfort when our uterus is shedding blood. We are more confident and less stressed about “staining” our clothes...
But what happens if you are a girl who has access to all of sanitary supplies, but can’t afford underwear to support your padding? Or don’t have clean running water for the cup or sponge? What if you’re about to get your period and you’re panicked, wondering if you will be able to rent clean underwear at the school office?
Most of us have never been in that situation. These difficulties never occurred to me. However, many young girls around the world are vulnerable to these horrible experiences every month. They own few to no underwear. As a result, some schools use their stressed budgets to buy underwear for girls to rent during their monthly cycles.
How dignified is that? How can a young woman ever embrace her womanhood when her dignity is compromised the moment she is forced to wear rented underwear? How to support these girls to find their dignity and embrace their womanhood as I, and as many of you likely have? How to bring them back out of hiding into the schools and communities where they belong, and where they can bring us their beautiful gifts?