by Pamela Maringa

We are living in the 21st century where almost everything has changed because of “progress”. In many ways we are, as a society, much more open minded and inclusive. Some things, however, remain almost medieval. The taboos and restrictions around women during menstruation are still common among many, including Christian societies. Not only are women considered to be “unclean” during these periods, but they are also seen as being in danger of communicating this “uncleanliness” to others.

I remember when I had my first period, I had just turned 15. It was an incredibly traumatic experience and to make matters worse, I couldn’t talk about it. I had to deal with it on my own. I come from a family where we just don’t talk about sex and menstruation. My family shies away from such topics. “Talking about it could make my mom think that I’ve been very naughty,” or so I thought to myself. I thought my mom would think that it was my fault. So I went to the supermarket and got the cheapest packet of sanitary pads and taught myself how to use them. The best education for me was TV. It seemed normal to just not talk about it.

Growing up in Limpopo everything and everyone seemed to be driven by culture. Menstruation was something to be hidden. They would say that if you tell people about your periods you will bleed forever, that is something my mother was told by my grandmother. Talking to my father about was not an option. Even today, we are very close but we still cannot have that kind of conversation.  Talking about sex and menstruation to a man, is seen as a sign of disrespect in African cultures. Some women will not be allowed to cook for their husbands and even go to church during their periods.

A year after I started my periods, a girl was shamed by the whole school when she dropped a tissue full of blood. The girl had used a toilet paper as a pad. She was embarrassed to ask for help just like every girl would have been. Everyone acted as if she had a deadly disease. If we were taught at home that menstruation is normal and nothing to be ashamed of, we would have been able to come out and help the girl instead of feeling like we were exposed.

In his exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis talks about how engaging in topics like sex and menstruation could help boys and girls understand and appreciate their differences and learn to respect each other. He talks about how parents should help young people to accept their own bodies. In that way they can joyfully accept the specific gifts given to one another.

If our patriarchal society regards women merely as reproductive machines, why do menstrual periods, which are a sign of mature woman capable of reproduction, viewed so negatively?

What better way to deal with this than to have a fundamental paradigm shift. Our society needs to do away with the oppressive patriarchal system in our communities. Families have to teach young girls to love themselves. They have to destigmatise and learn to talk openly about menstruation.

Menstruation is a beautiful thing and it should be celebrated by all.