Throughout history, feminine hygiene has remained an interesting yet delicate subject. In 2019, the world’s population was put at 7.674 billion people, with 3.763 billion being born with female genitalia. It is almost inevitable that these individuals have, or will have a period in which the uterus sheds mucosal tissue together with blood through the vagina.
Although much isn’t documented, the history of menstruation began in ancient civilization. As of today, cultures around the world still malign menstruation and consider the biological event unclean. Menstruation itself is off-limits for discussion.
Also, a recent encounter challenged my mastery of this topic. A cousin who turned 21 in May jokingly inquired if females could become pregnant without sexual intercourse.
I was momentarily stunned and answered, “No” even though there’s such a thing as cryptic pregnancy. Being a nurse, I recognized health-seeking behavior so I probed further.
I realized that the physical, medical, financial, and psychological burden beneath her awkward smile never crossed my mind. It happened that she did not have her period for a few months and she insisted she had not engaged in any sexual activity. So I thought, clinically, she can’t be pregnant.
I took a closer look at her and saw that she had developed signs of hysterical pregnancy. The cessation of her period had imposed immense stress on her and her hormones were out of sync.
Hysterical pregnancies are rare and often resemble pregnancy in every way, except for the presence of a baby. In all cases, the woman is absolutely certain that she is pregnant.
I called for a comprehensive laboratory investigation which included venereal disease test, pregnancy test, HVS culture and sensitivity, blood count, and malaria test.
She tested negative to all except malaria and a high yield of germs after the culture. The growth of harmful bacteria can lead to an infection when in contact with the genital tract. Altogether, this could result in a variation in the pH of vaginal secretions which further leads to a change in vaginal flora.
Myths associated with female hygiene
Historians documented that menstruating women were formerly associated with magical powers and sorcery. A typical example is in the writing of a Roman author and philosopher, Pliny. He wrote that a menstruating woman could stop hail storms and lightning, as well as kill crops. It was also believed that women in their periods could kill bees, dim mirrors, and rust weapons just by looking at them.
In some African communities, events such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), child marriage, rape, or biological events like menstruation are treated as sacred events. In the northern part of Nigeria, it is common for women to remain indoors until their period is over. Additionally, some religious settings, women are not allowed into places of worship or partake in religious activities such as fasting, as they are considered ‘unclean’.
Also, in some communities, women remain indoors after childbirth owing to postpartum bleeding. This could last as long as 42 days (6 weeks).
In Nepal, news broke out of how a 21-year-old woman died as a result of the illegal practice, chhaupadi. She was reportedly the fourth to die that year. Chhaupadi is a practice where menstruating women in Nepal are banished from their homes and forced to sleep in huts where they bleed in total isolation.
These and more are misconceptions related to feminine hygiene across the globe. Nonetheless, some governments have taken steps to promote feminine hygiene. For instance, the Indian government launched a national menstrual hygiene program in 2014 to promote menstrual hygiene. It targeted adolescents in rural areas and was basically aimed at supplying as well as training self-help groups to make sanitary napkins that were subsidized for the citizenry.
How far have we come with feminine hygiene?
Historians have documented that Ancient Egyptians invented tampons made of softened papyrus and the Greeks also made tampons from woods and wrapped lint around them. The history of pads started with the Romans who made then from wool.
Erin Laskis noted in a popular teen magazine, ” in the 1890s to 1970s, women could purchase washable pads that were attached to a belt around the waist”. No woman will embrace this today. Owing to technological advancement, we have indeed come a long way from an ancient civilization.
So, whats the reality with feminine hygiene?
First off, the average age for menopause has improved. Today’s women usually begin at 50. So, should there be an estimate in economic terms? How much does a period cost and who pays!?
An average woman of childbearing age experiences blood flow between 10-80 ml, during 2 to 7 days. On the regular, the amount of blood that a womans body expels during her period can be up to 35 ml (that’s about six spoons or more every month).
Depending on the woman’s flow, it is safe to estimate 7 to 30 pads a month. Today, 2 packs of 8 pads cost about N980 on Jumia. That’s a burdensome financial commitment for an average Nigerian woman especially those who are unemployed and dependent.
As a result of this, females, particularly teenagers, resort to low standards of hygiene because sanitary products are expensive.
Take home message!
In many African countries, a large percentage of the population lives in extreme poverty with little to no access to clean water, adequate sanitation, and nutrition. With increasing sexual abuse, conflicts, and war, these situations leave many women and girls in the developing world without the right knowledge and facilities to manage their menstrual hygiene.
The consequences are dangerous to their physical and mental health. It further restricts their access to education and participation in society.
Furthermore, the prevailing social taboo surrounding menstruation may require the government of the day to intervene.
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