Girls must be taught that there's no shame in having a period

Anna Stroud believes we need to rethink what we're teaching young women about that time of the month

20 May 2018 - 00:00 By Anna Stroud

Women bleed. Yet, as with so many aspects of our bodies, we're socialised from a young age not to talk about it.
The Afrikaans colloquial term for menstruation is maandsiekte - monthly illness - so from the age of 11 I told myself each month that I was ill, strange and other; that something beautiful and natural made me sickly and wrong.
Eusebius McKaiser recently hosted the co-creator of the Mina menstrual cup, Zaakira Mahomed, on 702. He opened the show with thoughts that have plagued me since I started bleeding regularly 19 years ago: "We live in a society that thinks we can give out free condoms but not free sanitary towels, even though, as a man, as a teenage boy, I can choose not to have sex, not to ejaculate, but the girl child, girls, women, can't choose whether or not to menstruate."
When I was 13, I menstruated heavily for six months straight. I didn't go to the doctor or tell anyone at school because I was embarrassed. I thought I was doing it wrong. I whispered to my mom that I needed more pads and she surreptitiously added them to the grocery list without alerting my father's suspicion.On my side of Calitzdorp, Always was a luxury item, but you knew someone's parents had money if they whipped out Kotex or Lil-Lets pads before a netball match. Tampons were taboo - they meant you were no longer a virgin - and no one had heard of menstrual cups.
In good months I made do with the extra-thick, extra-scratchy no-name variety; other months it was toilet paper or cotton wool. But I can't complain; in South Africa girls use everything from socks and rags to paper.Research by the Imbumba Foundation found that girls miss up to 50 school days a year because of menstruation.
Girls carry around an immense amount of shame about not only bleeding each month but also about not being able to afford sanitary products, as if this somehow signifies a deficiency on their part.
At the recent Kingsmead Book Fair, Always Another Country author Sisonke Msimang said something about sexual violence that I found relevant to this piece. She said the constant chipping away of girls' self-esteem, the systematic diminishing of women, makes it that much harder to build resilience.
That's why movements like Mina are important - because they go into communities and tell a positive story about menstruation and our relationship with our bodies.
Last year, something happened that made me think differently about menstruating. I had two serious surgeries, on one of my kidneys and on my ovaries, and after about a month of moping around in emoji slippers, I drove to Grahamstown. I stayed with a former lecturer and a few days into the trip, I got my period for the first time since my surgery. My lecturer's joy was so genuine, so ebullient, that I started to feel it too.I was bleeding, which meant I was healthy again. I felt no shame because she made a safe space for me where it wasn't an option. I didn't need to hide the debris or keep out of sight. I was whole. I hope all girls can feel like that. Not one day. Today.
• On May 28 and 29, the UN Population Fund, the Department of Women and partners from the public and private sphere will host the first Menstrual Health Management Symposium, in Johannesburg. Visit mhmsymposium.info..

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