Understanding the period experience in a cultural context
“Menstruation is the only blood that is not born from violence, yet it’s the one that disgusts you the most” – From a sign posted at the Women’s Day protest march
For reasons beyond my understanding, nearly every culture seems to have a problem with periods. In many countries, this sign of a healthy cycle is considered “unclean”, and women are being ostracised for going through it.
In the West, this presents itself in an almost clinical approach to this very natural experience. We have all seen the “blue liquid” ads, with their beautiful clean sheets, light summer dresses and big white smiles.
In other places, it’s not unheard of for women to be isolated from their community during five to ten days out of a month. They have to sleep outside, in “dog houses”. I can’t even begin to imagine what that does to a person’s psyche, let alone their confidence in their own body…
To understand the period experience of girls in Western Kenya in a cultural context, we visited a few schools in rural Kisumu. The girls there were quite open and willing to share their stories, partly thanks to the work of the Golden Girls Foundation in breaking the taboo of talking about the menses. Here are a few insights into what living with their menstruation is like for Kenyan school girls:
Some learn about periods from their families, some in school.
“I remember I saw my sister had a stain on her back. I asked what happened to her. My mother took the time and explained to me that every woman reaches a point where she must start experiencing the menses. She also told me about the tools, like pads. And that if you don’t have pads, you can use a rag, wash it clean and dry it. Then you fold it and use it.”
“I learned it from my science teacher when he was teaching reproduction in class six.”
“I saw my aunt put on a white trouser, the blood was running down her leg. My aunt went to the bathroom, I followed her and asked her about it, but she didn’t answer my questions. I was afraid for her; I didn’t know what disease she had. I really wanted to cry, because I loved my aunt. I went to my mother: ‘Mum, my aunt is sick!’ My mother explained to me it was just a stage that I was also going to pass.”
Others have never even heard about periods when they first have them.
“You know, sitting down with your guardian or your mum is very difficult.”
“I asked my sister about her pads: ‘What are these now? And what are they meant for?’ She was always laughing at me. ‘One day, you’ll also reach that stage.’”
“When it happened, I was in class six. I was shaking, I wanted to go to the hospital. I took a sweater and tied it around my waist. I asked for permission and I went back home. I shared it with my grandma, she just laughed at me, and I was crying, freaking out. I asked her to give me one hundred shillings so I could go to the hospital. She told me to just be patient, maybe after three, four days it would be over. And now it would every month. I got so scared.”
There are a lot of myths around periods and Ruby Cups.
“Some parents have not even gone to school. They think Ruby Cup is made from plastic, and that you shouldn’t put it in your body.”
“My aunt told me that Ruby Cup can cause cancer. Even my sister, who’s a nurse, told me it can cause diseases.”
“I heard that if you put it in, the vagina will expand.”
Sometimes, they can’t afford hygiene products and have to get creative.
“I used to use two packs of sanitary pads per month. That is a lot of money.”
“Sometimes the parents can’t afford hygiene products, so the girls find boyfriends who will buy them sanitary products in exchange for sex.”
“Before we tried Ruby Cup, it was a bit expensive. We would use blankets, towels, mattress filling, tissues… Some months, you’re broke and your mother is not around. So you work with what you’ve got.”
Ruby Cup takes a little getting used to but makes their life so much easier.
“When I showed the cup to the neighbourhood girls, they said ‘You are going to put that thing inside you? I can’t use that!’”
“My aunt wanted to take mine, but I didn’t give it to her.”
“When you use it for the first time, you somehow feel very guilty. You think there’s something inside you, and what if it drops? Like in a crowd? But that was just because I wasn’t used to it.”
“The sanitary pads felt itchy. I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t do sports. And I had to change them so much. Now I can do everything.”
“Sometimes you’d have to go home and take a bath. Now people don’t stain themselves anymore.”
These quotes were recorded during interviews at Joyland Mixed Special Needs Secondary School, Ayweyo Secondary School, Pawtenge Secondary School, and St. Peter’s Nanga Secondary School in Masogo, Kenya.
Ruth Asan (28) is a writer and political communication consultant from Germany. She has worked and studied in Berlin, Spain and Kenya. Most recently, she became co-founder of the Savara Women’s Advancement Program (SaWA), a training and mentorship program for young women from Nairobi.