The Sunday Mail
It’s a chilly day in May.
A girl, her face tense, sits resignedly as if babysitting a ticking time bomb. Cracked lips and a face covered with hormonal pimples, her sight mirrors pain and discomfort.
In the summer of 2015, Nokutenda Musekwa (not her real name) got her menses for the first time.Musekwa, who was 13 years old at the time, was not excited about this new phase in her life. Menstruation added yet another burden to her already troubled existence.
“I don’t have parents. I live with my grandmother and we survive only on her pension money.
“When I asked my grandmother for money to buy pads, she shouted at me. She told me that there was no money and that I should just use a piece of cloth,” she remembers.
She gathered some old T-shirts and tore them up into smaller rags that she could stuff into her panties.
“This would prevent me from bleeding through my school uniform,” she thought.
But it didn’t always work. Musekwa says her maroon school skirt helped her to hide the blood stains, and that way she didn’t have to go home early.
On a chance visit to Rusape, she went to a local supermarket and bought seven square washcloths that would become her monthly makeshift sanitary pads. As an alternative to the wash cloths, she would turn to banana leaves.
“I only bought dark colours — mostly brown and blue such that the blood wouldn’t show,” she explained.
During her period, Musekwa used to wash the cloths when she returned from school so she could re-use them the next day. The stained blue and brown pieces of cotton towelling would flap in the wind for everyone to see. That’s how her grandmother and the rest of the community knew about her period.
“Using cloths for your period is embarrassing. It shows everyone that you are so poor that you can’t even buy proper pads,” Musekwa added.
And changing the cloths during school time was nerve-wrecking.
Musekwa would wrap the soiled napkins in a plastic bag and then hide them in her shirt as she walked from the bathroom to classroom, always terrified that she could drop the bag in front of her classmates.
Then in one of the reproductive lessons at school, she got to learn of Depo-Provera, a birth control injection that prevents ovulation as well as menstruation. In the dead of the night, Musekwa crept to a local clinic to get a Depo-Provera injection.
With time, the story of a teenage girl on contraceptives spread like veld fire, consuming Musekwa’s reputation and credibility with it.
“Nobody bothered to ask me why I did it, they all laughed saying I was now sexually active and I did not want to pregnant. Some of my friends even confirmed that I was now a prostitute,” she said, with tears filling up her eyes.
But Musekwa is not the only girl to resort to such methods to handle her menstrual cycle, a move that has got the Ministry of Health and Child Care worried.
The Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Dr Gerald Gwinji, is saddened by this case.
“Depo-Provera was not included in our essential medicines for purposes of menstrual control but for contraception, therefore, it is wrong to use it for any other purposes, other than what it is meant for. Prescribed for the right reasons to the right age group, the injection places an opportunity in the hands of the user to make choices about when to get pregnant,” he said.
He went on to explain that the negative effects of Depo-Provera include spotting, bleeding of serious magnitudes and a possible delay in recommencing fertile cycles at cessation. Further research also shows that headaches, nervousness, mood swings, depression, dizziness, acne, changes in appetite and hair loss are included amongst the side effects as well. Unfortunately, most of these side effects are not conducive for a school-going pupil like Musekwa, whose performance is affected negatively.
Musekwa confessed that she did not know about the side effects and that even if she did, she would not care as she was caught between a rock and a hard place. A number of rural girls have confessed how they even use cow dung and saw dust to replace sanitary wear.
Sadly, the use of unclean material during menstruation can lead to fungal infections, urinary infections, reproductive tract infections and increases vulnerability to infertility. A recent study also showed how using these substitutes can cause cervical cancer.
One sustainable, easy to use, cost effective and eco-friendly sanitary wear is a menstrual cup. Its purpose is to prevent menstrual fluid from leaking onto clothes. It would be ideal if sanitary wear in its different forms were available to the girl-child.