* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Most women can remember their first period. I can: I was staying with my step-grandmother, with my dad and his wife. We went to a pharmacy to buy pads, which were massive and gave me the impression that I could expect to lose a lot of blood – which thankfully, I didn’t. When I got home to my mum, she gave me a big hug and said (slightly tearfully) “You can have a baby now!” I was 11, so this was not exactly comforting, but the intention was good and I was thankful even then that I was able to discuss it with her openly.
In the UK, most of us are lucky enough to receive basic education about menstruation even though it does not equip us with enough information to deal with bleeding every month for the next 4-5 decades of our life. Imagine how frightening it would be to find blood in your underwear as a girl, and not to know why, or what to do about it. Imagine being too ashamed or afraid to tell your parents or teachers. Imagine being called names, prevented from doing your daily tasks, or even being beaten, each time you bled.
Now you have an idea what life is like for Nomcebo and girls and women like her in Swaziland, a small country in southern Africa. Swaziland is poor and life expectancy is low: 49 for women, 50 for men. This is related to the fact that Swaziland has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world, with 28.8% of the adult population HIV positive. It is socially conservative – it may be about to become the first African country to ban divorce – but fairly peaceful.
Menstruation is highly taboo in Swaziland, and can lead to social isolation, crushing accusations and physical hardship. Women on their period are considered “dirty, weak and cursed”, and are prevented from doing household tasks. They are forbidden to enter the cooking hut, and girls cannot play. Some churches do not permit menstruating women to touch the Bible. Due to a lack of education surrounding menstruation, it is often believed that periods are a result of sexual activity, which compounds the stigma and accusations.
Whilst most (although, tragically, not all) women in the UK have access to a wide variety of sanitary towels, tampons, menstrual cups and cloth pads, this is not the case in Swaziland. Many Swazi women are unable to afford menstrual products, and so Nomcebo, her daughter and others like them are forced to use old newspapers, rags and leaves. These unhygienic options can lead to further health problems.
Nomcebo wants to change all this, and to see change for menstruating women in Swaziland. She reached out to Binti International, a charity committed to promoting menstrual education, health and hygiene in the UK, Africa and India. Binti helped Nomcebo to understand menstrual matters, and through their extensive training programme she qualified as a certified Binti Menstrual Education Trainer.
But Nomcebo needs your support in order to deliver classes designed to de-stigmatise and empower, and to provide hygienic materials for managing menstruation. Just £10 a month can provide a girl with enough sanitary towels to last a year. After working with Binti, Nomcebo wrote, “Today I stand tall that I bleed, and I am normal and healthy. My period is a blessing and I am proud of it... Let us join hands and #smashshame and end stigma. Together we can do it.”
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