To mark World Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), Reshma Khan, from the CARE East, Central and Southern Africa Regional Office, writes:
To menstruate. I remember having no idea what this meant.
Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, the primary school curriculum wasn’t very open about talking about periods. My ancestors are from the Indian sub-continent, although my family has been in East Africa for centuries. There are some traditions that do remain though. One of them seems to be talking (or not) about women’s issues. My mother seemed the exception—she was bold and vivacious, but even when talking about periods, I don’t remember having open discussions.
I vividly remember the day I got my first period. I was 12 years old.
I had seen a spot or two and didn’t think anything of it. Then, my mum showed up at school! And talked to my teacher outside – and all of a sudden I was allowed to go home for the day. When I got home, my mum explained to me that I had started my period, and I was now a woman. And then she quickly proceeded to show me how to use bulky pads.
That weekend we had a family wedding, and my mum would proudly whisper to my aunts, “Oh she started her period.”
I would get glances, smiles and nods, but that was it. We never spoke about what this meant.
My father passed away a year later, and my mum was the sole breadwinner in the family. I have a younger sister—and of course some of the costs we had were sanitary pads. My mum was really great and made sure she got us super slim ones—other friends’ mums were way more traditional!
When I was 16 and we were going to the beach, my mum decided to buy us tampons. This is so against our culture! That whole story about losing your virginity makes some communities very conservative…But my mum didn’t care.
Forward to years later—I was happy with my tampons and pads as back-ups, but my work with CARE did lead me to the field quite often.
I remember having to find a shelter in the field to change a pad, to explain to my mostly male colleagues that I urgently needed a bathroom—and then, having to carry my pads with me in my bag to dispose of when back at my hotel.
I remember being in the field in Malawi one day and—having leaked through my safari pants and not knowing—one of CARE’s project participants, a lovely lady, asking me to go with her to her hut. She was so kind—she told me about my leak, then gave me a sarong to cover me till I could get back to my hotel. She told my male colleagues that she had wanted to see me separately to give me a gift for visiting—so they never really knew the truth.
I started noticing more and more how women and girls in the field, and especially those we work to serve, deal with their periods.
“And it makes me think—we have vilified menstruation so much. In many cultures, during their period, women are told to leave the house, and stay elsewhere or outside. In some cultures, women retreat to the forest. And society is still OK with that?”
Reshma KhanCARE East, Central and Southern Africa Regional Office
CARE is doing some great work in some places, making sure we get sanitary pads to girls so they can stay in schools. I started to get very passionate about menstrual issues, costs of products, and management for women.
That’s how I came across Ruby Cup. They are a fantastic social enterprise working with communities to get menstrual cups to women and girls. Now, I had never heard of a menstrual cup before, and I was keen to see what this was about.
I was converted! I started using a menstrual cup in the field, and gone were leak days, issues about privacy—I could go 12 hours in the field without worrying!
I needed to do more—I got Ruby Cup to meet some leaders of CARE offices in the region. Today, Ruby Cup works with CARE in refugee settlements in Uganda through their local partner, WOMENA. I has been amazing! Women and girls are now more confident, they feel safer because they don’t have to leave home at night to change their pads at the shared community toilets, and girls can stay in school through the month.
It doesn’t stop there. I got really into menstrual issues, and dug deeper into tradition. And I am at a point where that time of the month is special to me.
I learnt about the red tent, a space where women come together during their periods, to be taken care of, to take care of each other, to heal and renew.
And it makes me think—we have vilified menstruation so much. In many cultures, during their period, women are told to leave the house, and stay elsewhere or outside. In some cultures, women retreat to the forest. And society is still OK with that?
We keep hearing stories of women dying of starvation, animal bites, or other causes when out there. Yet society still sticks to their guns.
It makes me grateful that I had a mother who chose to defy tradition—but it also makes me terribly sad that there are women and girls out there who are being treated as sub-human because they have the beautiful ability to menstruate.
So what will we choose to do about this as the leaders of tomorrow?