That sense of shame

A piece in the Guardian on menstruation by Bibi van der Zee and Katherine Purvis starts with this uncomfortable fact:

“Girls are literally selling their bodies to get sanitary pads,” says Dr Penelope Phillips-Howard. “When we did our study in Kenya, one in ten of the 15 year old girls told us that they had engaged in sex in order to get money to buy pads. These girls have no money, no power. This is just their only option.”

The joys of being a girl – you have this mess to deal with, and you have to engage in unwanted sex to get the money to deal with the mess.

“The persistent taboo around menstruation means that limited information is available to young women,” says Sabrina Rubli of Femme International. A study by the Canadian organisation in Nairobi revealed that 80% of girls had no idea what their period was before they started.

Oh, no – that’s horrifying. So 4 out of 5 girls in Kenya get scared out of their wits around age 12. That’s so cruel, however unintentionally.

That sense of shame, the sense of being guilty of an activity so secret that that no one will even talk about it, is then compounded by cultural prejudices and beliefs around menstruation which vary from country to country and region to region. In some cultures, it emerges, women are told that eating certain foods during their period will make them smell bad, in others women are sent away from the home or not allowed to bathe, while yet in others an association is made between menstruation and sexual activity.

An Ethiopian girl tells of how her father found her washing her underpants and demanded an explanation, she said it was nothing and he picked up a stick to hit her with. Her mother intervened, but her father said “menstruation happens only after a girl has had sex with a man” and he beat her.

Schools in particular can be full of pitfalls. There may not be adequate bathroom facilities; many have shared latrines, no locks on the doors, and no running water. According to the research, some teachers are unsympathetic and teaching methods may compound the problem. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, teachers prefer students to stand up when they answer a question, and girls often talked about their anxiety that they would have to stand up and reveal stains on their clothing.

Puberty is such hell for girls.

“Sometimes when I am in class and the teacher is teaching, I don’t concentrate on what is being taught because your mind is always on the thought that when you stand and your clothes will be blood stained and the teacher will see, hence you don’t concentrate.” Partly as a result, and partly for all the other reasons, girls often miss school when they are menstruating. The World Bank has estimated that a girl may thus miss between 10-20% of her education.

“‘Some people exchange sex for money,” one young girl told her interviewer. “The money is used to buy pads. Maybe she is being given money then they have sexual intercourse.’

“It’s referred to as transactional sex,” says Phillips-Howard. “But of course in some cases it is really coercive.” She worked on the 2013 and 2015 teams and also worked on further research, published last year, which drew on responses from more than three thousand women to find that one in ten 15 year olds said that they had had sex in order to get hold of money for pads. “‘She will go look for this money (to buy pads) from the men, and that’s how they can end up with the unwanted pregnancies,” one parent told the team.

Well at least it stops the bleeding for awhile.

And the long-term implications? As the researchers point out in the 2013 report: “Should others become aware a girl was menstruating, the girl would become (or was fearful of becoming) a figure of fun, being laughed at or teased. That this was so dreaded by the girls is perhaps indicative of it being seen as a form of emotional bullying. We wonder,” they ask, “if such bullying is the first step on the path towards gender abuse which females in this region become accustomed to. The context in which our study was set shows particularly high rates of gender-related physical, sexual and emotional violence, which appears to be an accepted part of life for women.”

I can’t read any more of it right now. It’s too tragic.

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