‘I thought I had injured myself.’ When 17-year-old Phiona in Kampala got her first period, she did not understand what was happening. She was 14. Twiine, another woman from Uganda, thought the same: that she had injured herself, somehow. Perhaps when she was gathering firewood? Could it have been the twigs?
‘I didn’t know anything, I just kept bleeding until I got home,’ says one of the students at the high school in Bangalore, India. She was crying from fear. Nor did Annie Kisaakye in the Ugandan town Jinja know anything about menstruation. She did not dare mention the blood to her mother: ‘I was afraid that she’d think I had been with a boy, and get mad.’
Blood that inexplicably flows from the body is more than a little scary. It is terrifying. Menstrual blood cannot be stopped with a plaster or bandage. The red fluid that signals sickness and death just keeps coming. And because it flows from the vagina, it is generally associated with sex and shame, regardless of a 10- or 13-year-old’s understanding of the function of menstruation.
‘Before I got my period I didn’t know anything about it … it’s a very secret subject; it isn’t supposed to be discussed with the young, those who haven’t had their periods yet,’ says one of the students who is interviewed in a study from Zambia.
How many menstruators do not understand what is happening when they get their first period? There are no statistics that cover all the billions of menstruators in the world, no estimation of menstrual preparation at a global level. Many of the studies are from different parts of India and offer a range from 15 to 85 per cent. Among teenagers in north-western Gujarat state, in one of the wealthier parts of India, 37 per cent stated that they knew nothing before they got their first period themselves. Fifteen per cent thought that they had been stricken with a serious and perhaps life- threatening disease.
In a slum in the South Indian city of Bijapur, 80 per cent lacked knowledge of menstruation when the first period came. In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which shares a border with Nepal, the corresponding statistic was 66 per cent. A study among university students from different parts of the country gave the lowest number of 15 per cent – who knew nothing when the blood came.
There are also statistics from the neighbouring country Pakistan which show that only half of all first-time menstruators have prior knowledge. Fifteen per cent have been taught to manage menstruation. Outside of the Indian subcontinent, in a study from Senegal, almost 40 per cent answered ‘No’ to the question of whether anyone had prepared them for menstruating. The most common emotion at the time of the first period was fear. In the Senegalese study, 85 per cent of participants, both young and old, wanted to know more about menstruation.
At the Norslund school in Falun, Sweden, in 1987, I was 12 years old and waited eagerly. Peering curiously at others in the changing room after gym class, in the hope of clues. Was there a way to tell? My knowledge of menstruation may have been limited, but I had heard about it both at home and in school. Basic information about the menstrual cycle, menstrual protection, and menstrual pains. Yet I was not unafraid. The blood. Is it the right colour? Should there be so much of it? Is it supposed to smell like this? And the clots? Other questions I would not be able to put into words until many years later. Why are there not better menstrual products? Why don’t we talk about PMS and menstrual pains? Why are we ashamed?
Menstrual knowledge is difficult to combine with one of the fundamental, global rules of menstruation: the one about silence. Certain things manage to get through. Secrecy. Cleanliness and dirt. Sex and boys. But facts bounce against false notions and numerous myths. The image of what happens inside the body is blurry. The strategies for managing the blood are haphazard.
This is an extract from It’s Only Blood: Shattering the Taboo of Menstruation available now from Zed Books.