As a teenager, Edinah Masanga had to figure out menstruation on her own. She questions why there is still so much reluctance to speak honestly about periods.
“I have never forgotten the shame that I felt that day. I cannot forget it because I still see it and feel it 21 years later.”
I was 16 and in my final year at Mabvure Secondary School, about to be done with it all. Like most ‘school leavers’ in my village, I was celebrating that I would no longer be policed for homework or have to wake up on time for school. I was basking in the joy and pride of becoming an ‘adult.’
But, one afternoon took this triumphant feeling away from me. I woke up with a little nagging pain in my lower back that morning. I could not tell anyone because one of the many dearly held mythical beliefs in my village is that back pain is only felt by people who are sexually active. I could not bear to tell my mother about my pain lest she would believe I had done the deed. And so I left for school as usual, assuming it was one of those little disturbances that would pass.
At Mabvure school, 10am was break time and at the ring of the bell, school kids poured out of classrooms like ants. We gathered in the middle of the school yard to bask in some sunshine for 30 minutes.
That day, I got up like the others but something sent me right back down. My skirt felt wet at the back and it was stuck to my skin on that spot. Oh, my, what is this? I wondered. I moved my hand cautiously to where the feeling of dampness had come from, trying not to attract the attention of my classmates. My heart began to beat very fast. Is this what I think it is? I shivered.
For a while I sat on my hand, afraid to confirm my worst fears. Then I slowly pulled it away to check. There it was, a parched red stain tracing the lines of my inside palm. I was floored with shock. How could this happen to me so far away from home?
I sat there on a bench meant for two pupils. There were four other students on it, crowded in. I struggled through the end of the day, guarding the spot I sat on like a lioness, refusing to budge even an inch. I did not want them to see that I was bleeding onto the bench.
I had never had a conversation about periods and how to prepare for them. It was nowhere in the school curriculum; it might have been briefly touched on in science as an academic issue, but nowhere as a social issue for girls like me.
And so I sat there waiting for the clock to hit 4pm so that other students would leave the room. After they left, I was stuck on that hard wooden bench for a couple more hours waiting for the sun to go down so that I could walk home under the protection of darkness. This was all so that no one would see the stain on my skirt, the red spot that resembled shame.
I had not learned to welcome the arrival of my period as an event to celebrate and acknowledge as natural. Rather, I learned to associate it with dirtiness.
I sat on that bench for eleven hours without getting up. As my buttocks cramped and lost sensation, I thought about how I was going to tell my mom. I was scared to tell her that I had this thing that everyone hated. I had seen other girls being laughed at for having their period. I had heard tales of wives beaten for not telling their husbands their days were near, for ‘contaminating’ their husbands during sex. And now I had allowed this dirty thing to happen to me.
My first period brought with it shame, ridicule, and pain. It was also so heavy that when I got home, I had blood running down my legs. Apparently, this was too much blood. One of my aunties from my father's side who was visiting us suggested I needed to be tested for virginity because “virgins do not bleed like that on their first one.”
My mother, afraid I was engaging in sex and could get pregnant, agreed. My aunt prodded the inside of my bleeding vagina with her dirty, tobacco covered fingers, looking for the hymen. All because I had gotten my period.
I have never forgiven her. Nor have I forgotten. But my aunt is part of a system that taught her many myths about menstruation. She is part of a generation that contributed to the shame that still comes with periods today.
In my village, when a woman is menstruating, she is discouraged from cooking for people (as if cooking for people was not a burden enough already). Or she is discouraged from entering sacred shrines of worship or traditional ceremonies because she is regarded as 'impure’ during that time. And the media is complicit in perpetuating these myths.
I always ask myself: Why can't we treat periods for what they are, a natural part of women’s lives and bodies? Why is menstruation blood so shameful? Why don’t we ever seescenes on TV where women have stained their clothes or sheets with menstruation blood?
I have never really understood why advertisements for tampons or pads use blue when demonstrating the strength or capability of the product. Really? If you are selling something that I will use to soak up blood, why not use a substance that resembles blood to demonstrate it?
This isn’t about society’s revulsion to the color of blood. I used to think it was until I realized how much 'blood' we see in movie scenes and other visual media—except when the topic is about periods. Unlike all other blood, the blood that comes from a vagina is shameful. It's dirty and not something we are supposed to see or acknowledge.
The word menstruation is visibly absent in news stories and I have yet to see a movie in which they show a woman going through the paces of menstruation. They will create sex scenes and even vomiting scenes, but menstruation is disgusting?
I have never forgotten the shame that I felt the day my first period arrived. I cannot forget it because I still see it and feel it 21 years later. All around me, I see how women are made to feel ashamed of their periods.
We need to start having a balanced and truthful conversation now. We can start by calling it what it is: periods or menstruation. Next we can create images that depict the realities of menstruation.
I think back to my 16-year-old self alone on that school bench and I wonder what my experience would have been if I had accurate knowledge and positive associations with menstruation. I deserved this information and so do all women and girls today.
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