This article was first published in my column in the Standard
Yesterday was World Menstrual Hygiene Day.
Growing up, I knew next to nothing about menstruation. Thanks to primary school education, I knew technically that if a girl does not get pregnant, well, something happens in her uterus and blood comes out. I also knew that as a member of the male species, this was a matter that I should not concern myself with as it was a private matter among women, spoken about far away from the ears of men and boys.“It’s a cultural thing,” I was made to understand. “Men do not concern themselves with the affairs of women.”
All I needed to understand was that I should not make her pregnant until we were married. That was it.
Even as a young adult, society had women purchase sanitary towels in pharmacies in hushed tones. The sanitary towels were carefully wrapped in newspaper and secreted away into handbags.
Men and boys were never sent to the shops to buy sanitary towels. I asked my uncle if he ever bought sanitary towels for his wife when he would go shopping.“How?” he exclaimed, aghast. “The only time that matter came up was when I wanted to ‘dance’ in bed and it was that time of the month. I never even knew where those things were kept or if she even had them.” My uncle never even knew whether she used pads or tampons and he wasn’t even sure of the difference between the two.
I asked my friend Kinyanjui, who is a widower and father of daughters, how he dealt with things when his daughters had started having periods. “I had no idea what to do. With my eldest daughter, it started when we were driving from Eldoret to Nairobi when she was 13 years old,” he told me.
“Out of the blues she shouted, ‘Daddy, I’m bleeding!’ and I almost drove into oncoming traffic in shock.”
See also: Daddy, I’m bleeding!
He stopped the car and upon further examination, found that her dress and the seat was all bloody. Both father and distraught daughter were completely unprepared and lost. “I drove to a clinic around the Burnt Forest area and talked to a kindly nurse there and she was able to provide the needed guidance.” When they got to Nairobi, he drove to his sister’s house and she stayed over there for a few days.
“When I thought about it, over those few days I decided that I must understand this thing and I took the time to learn all I needed to know. With my other daughters, it was easier – I am the one who told them about what to expect and that they should not be ashamed of it. I also had the help of my eldest daughter!”
For many men, all they know is that periods are a messy, painful experience that somehow causes them to have weird mood swings.
“It’s that time of the month, eh?” many legitimately annoyed women have been teased by men – especially in the workplace. Certainly in the workplace, it has generally been discouraged that men should know that a woman is going through her periods. The challenge is that as a result, many women have had to suffer in silence without the understanding and support of their male colleagues.
Worse still, the experiences have caused them to be type-cast as moody and therefore not “sound” to be in the running for promotions.
“We can’t have these mood swings in the C-suite,” a gentleman told me as I wrote this piece. “There we need people to be steady, that’s why we don’t promote young women to the top – they can’t be steady, like the older women who have already gone through ‘this thing’ for decades.”
When conducting orientation for new female members of staff at my office, I invariably will walk them through our medicine cabinet and point out that we have various kinds of medicine, including some that are helpful for cramps.I am usually met with mild discomfort when I encourage them not to be ashamed of their cycles.
“It is not even discussed in organisations, where the CEO is a woman – or at best it is discussed in euphemisms,” my colleague told me about her experience during our orientation. “I was both very uncomfortable – but at the same time, it was one of the main reasons I decided to take the job. How can we get men to be supportive of something that is not stigmatised?”
The reason we encourage openness even on menstruation at the Open Institute, where I work, is that it would help us know how to be supportive. A lot of our work involves going to remote parts of the country. Imagine that the trip was going to involve a female colleague and it was scheduled at a time when she is going through the worst cramps and a heavy flow.
Considering that most parts of the country do not have access to water and good sanitation facilities, it would add exponentially to her agony if she were to go – not to mention that she may not be at her best and this would compromise her performance. If we knew, then we might reschedule the trip by a few days to accommodate her.
Men should know and get involved in matters menstruation.
The situation currently is that policies and budgets in the country are predominantly decided by men, who make up the majority in committees and boards – especially in government. For as long as menstruation remains a private matter for women, then policies that deal with “period poverty” will persist.
Period poverty is a nifty phrase that denotes the situation where it continues to be difficult for women and girls to have access to sanitary towels and facilities.