Recently, a reader responded to one of my articles, titled ‘Bloody Hell’. In this article, I wrote about the stigma of menstrual cycles and how not much has been done about it. Thus, this article highlights the taboos associated with periods that lead to the stigmatisation of women who are menstruating.
Stigma is defined as a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something.
A taboo is defined as something that is prohibited or restricted by social customs. In this case, the stigma is towards menstruation. For the stigma to exist, there has to be taboos around that specific subject that the society has made a part of their narratives.
In this case, one can say that menstrual taboos co-exist well with the stigma on periods – and globally, the stigma of menstruation is perpetrated by cultural taboos, discrimination, lack of education, silence and period poverty (the inability to access/afford feminine hygiene products).
Menstrual taboos have existed, and still exist, in many or most cultures. Around the world and throughout history, misconceptions about menstruation have led to women’s and girls’ exclusion from all kinds of roles and settings – everything from leadership positions to space travel.
In Namibia, most of the stigma around periods is enacted by cultural norms and tradition. One of the taboos that have led to stigma is that menstruation is not a topic that is up for discussion in households.
Especially in the Ovawambo setting, when a girl is menstruating, talking about it is a taboo. The only conversations that take place in Ovawambo household settings is informing either the elderly that you are on your periods – and that is it. After that is done, conversations on what it is and how to go about it is rarely brought up.
As such, silence about menstruation can lead to ignorance and neglect, including at the policy level. This then means the girl child grows up with the narrative that menstruating should be a silent process.
This not only happens at home but in settings such as the school, the child would be embarrassed to share that information because it is not a public discussion. This leaves women and girls vulnerable to things like period poverty and discrimination.
It also adversely affects women and girls with heightened vulnerabilities. Those living with HIV can face stigma when seeking sanitation facilities, menstruation supplies and health care, for example.
Another example is how periods are considered to be a pure and discreet process. This means that other people should not have knowledge of what is happening to you because then, that means you are untidy and dirty. However, this taboo it not only wrong, but it breeds shame and discomfort within women. What happens when this girl’s periods leak out and mess on her pants? You can imagine the shame she would feel and how the boychild and her fellow women would react.
The continuous pushing of that narrative is what causes stigma to our girls in society. As such, women who experience these things often end up depressed and/or unwilling to begin conversations in households. This silence often leads to things such as period poverty, where the girl child is ashamed to mention her menstrual cycle and would end up using either cloth, paper and/or other material she can find.
Because of the silence around menstruation, tradition has argued that it is only a matter that should be known to women. If a man has knowledge on menstruation, he is either seen as weak or someone who meddles in women’s affairs. However, that is exactly the beginning of the lack of education and passing on narratives and beliefs that could potentially harm women.
What happens in households where the guardian is a man who grew up believing that periods are not conversations for men? While it is true that menstruation is experienced in the bodies of women and girls – as well as other individuals such as non-binary and trans persons – menstrual health issues are human rights issues, and therefore of importance to society as a whole.
This means men and boys must be involved in conversations about gender equality and promoting positive masculinities that aim to eliminate menstruation-associated stigma and discrimination.
• Frieda Mukufa’s lifestyle section concentrates on women-related issues and parenting every Friday in the New Era newspaper. She also specialises in editing research proposals, proofreading as well as content creation.