Periods are the most common taboo subject even though they affect more than half the global population. Menstruating is this mythical thing that happens to women everyday but no one ever talks about it or sees it. Everyone knows it happens but the concept that women bleed consistently every month is shied away from. Bodies that menstruate find themselves consistently hiding the proof of the period. From putting pads at the bottom of the grocery basket, to making sure no one sees you wash out your bloody sheets, we have become masterminds at hiding the ‘crime scene’.
The first time I had my period was a rather strange moment. Funnily enough, it was something I looked forward to. My biological clock had decided to bless me with womanhood slightly later than all my friends, and I couldn’t wait to start asking people for extra pads in heated whispers. So when the spotting started, I excitedly shrilled that I was finally becoming a woman. Actually, this is not something all people who bleed, look forward to. In fact, getting your period is seen as overwhelmingly negative. This is mostly because of the shame people relate to the female body’s normal biological function. Periods are dirty, disgusting and something that should at all costs be hidden.
When the poet Dominique Christina’s daughter had her first period, she threw a period party ‘red everything’. This was a large statement in a world that seems to want to understand women’s bodies as vessels for male consumption and not as living breeding beings. The message she was trying to convey was that our bodies have uteruses that cause bleeding when we matriculate from childhood to adulthood, and that this is absolutely normal and nothing to be distressed about.
In Staceyann Chin’s memoir, she writes that she learned about her period from her cousin’s biology book. She compared the colour of the residue that was in her panties, to the hemoglobin red colour that the textbook described period blood as. She details her struggles to put on a pad for the first time, which resulted in her giving herself an unwanted bikini wax.
Every woman has a period story but somehow, this aspect of our biological function is still shrouded in secrecy and hiding. Our period stories are different and this is precisely why it is so important to talk about periods and how they affect our lives. There are women who have cramps so painful that they can’t be productive during their periods. Some women who cannot afford to buy protective wear are forced to stay home for three to seven days a month. There are currently seven million girls in South Africa between the ages of 13 and 19 who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads or tampons. These narratives are important.
All over South Africa, women who can afford to have started donating pads in enormous quantities, hoping that they will somehow fix the problem. Events where the entrance price is a box of pads have become common and pad donation boxes have sprung out all over the country. This is admirable however, this type of activism is not sustainable. The lack of provision of free pads by the government undermines women’s right to dignity, especially when we acknowledge the reality that all over this country, many women are forced to choose between food and pads every single month.
In South Africa, male condoms are free and accessible in most public places. There are boxes for male condoms in flavors ranging from grape to strawberry. Although it is commendable that the government is engaging in promoting our constitutional right to reproductive health care, the government finds itself lacking in providing for women who cannot afford to sustain their biological function, and who do not have the ability to opt out of it.
The department of education in the KwaZulu-Natal province has rolled out the menstrual amenities for girls of school going age. It is a progress, but there is a long way to go. Homeless women, women in rural areas and a large amount of working class women, can still not afford the luxury of pads and this must be rectified. It is inhumane that female bodies must suffer serious financial and social repercussions for a natural function of our bodies. It is high time we spread the conversation about periods.
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