The dreaded day had finally come. I woke up with an excruciating stomach pain and my back felt so hot that it could easily work as a stovetop. I wasn’t sure which was worse: the stomach pain or the back pain. I was not sure what the problem was until I got up from my bed.
My next dilemma was how to tell my mother, as we had never talked about menstruation. Since we lived in a crowded single room with my four siblings and visiting relatives, there was no privacy. I was 15 years old, living in a slum without proper sanitation facilities. I had learnt about menstruation at school, but the associated stigma made it a dreaded milestone for girls. School teasing made girls work to hide their breasts and woe unto you if other children found out that you are on your period, especially if you stained your uniform.
At home, I nervously took a piece of paper and wrote “I have started” on it and then handed it to my mother. Her reaction was “started what?” (The term ‘started’ was commonly used among teenagers to indicate that someone had started their period.) You can imagine my embarrassment as everyone was now wide awake and curious about what I had started. So, I took back the paper from her and wrote ‘periods.’ She was quiet for a minute then asked me to go shower and prepare for school. In my head I was thinking: “doesn’t she understand the pain I am going through? How do I go to school while in so much pain? How was I going to survive the day without raising suspicion from my peers that I had ‘started’? How was I going to make the long trips to the school toilets from my class?” But I obeyed my mother and went to shower.
Would my mum buy sanitary towels? She did, and they were cute, meant for girls who had just ‘started’, but there was nothing cute about periods.
Our bathroom was outside and shared communally with several households. My mum came to the bathroom and handed me a neatly folded tissue paper. I remember it was green. She told me to use it as she did not have sanitary towels or money to buy any. She handed me two other neatly rolled tissue papers to use during the day. We were refugees in Kenya, and my mother was a student supporting her children and the ever-increasing number of relatives in our house with the little pocket money she got from her scholarship. I understood when she didn’t have any sanitary supplies to give me. But I was stressed, how would I make sure the tissue doesn’t fall out or that I don’t stain my clothes?
That day was one of the saddest of my life. Periods change your life in a way no one can explain. The jolly bright girl I was became so withdrawn. I could not play with my friends, walk around freely, or even answer questions in class that day because you must stand up to answer. I had to keep checking my dress once everyone had left class. I missed lunch and was the last one to go home that day. The toilets at school were not the cleanest but were better than the latrine at home.
Luckily, I survived that day but dreaded the next. Would my mum buy sanitary towels? She did, and they were cute, meant for girls who had just ‘started’, but there was nothing cute about periods. I found myself praying to end my period and bring them back only when I could afford sanitary supplies; plus, the pain was unbearable. Over 20 years later, millions of girls are saying the same prayer.
The good news is that UNICEF is working with partners in South Sudan to provide vulnerable school girls with dignity kits three times a year; they contain reusable pads, soap, underwear, a torch, a hanging line and a comb. This makes it easier for girls to manage their periods while in school or at home. In addition, UNICEF is providing water and constructing gender-sensitive sanitation facilities where girls can easily take care of their menstrual hygiene.
In 2018, UNICEF South Sudan provided dignity kits to over 50,000 vulnerable girls and over 5,000 women of children-bearing age, including women in prisons. To end the stigma toward girls during menstruation, UNICEF is also working with the Ministry of Education to sensitize both boys and girls on menstruation through hygiene clubs in schools as well as raising community awareness through radio. Distributing dignity kits in South Sudan helps keep girls in school. According to the Director General in the Ministry of Education, the number of school dropouts has greatly reduced in his state since UNICEF started distributing kits to girls in school.
The conversation on menstruation needs to continue. More people need to know and understand that menstruation is a normal biological process and that we need to support girls as they go through this normal and important part of life. Without periods, we shall all cease to exist.
Mercy Kolok is Communications Officer for UNICEF in South Sudan.