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Address menstrual pain to save women and girls

 Address menstrual pain to save women and girls (Photo: iStock)

I like the fact that we live in a society that is so intentional about donating sanitary towels. That is the one cause that people never fail to support and it is important because period poverty is still a major problem in this part of the world. What I have never quite understood though is why no one ever addresses the issue of menstrual cramps when tackling menstrual poverty.

It is as if that pain means absolutely nothing even when it is known that half of the women who menstruate depend on painkillers to get through their periods. Menstrual pain is usually mild enough to be taken care of by over-the-counter drugs but for some women, the pain is usually so severe that it keeps them from doing their normal activities for several days a month. In the United States, for example, period-related pain is the number one reason why girls miss school even more than the common cold, and in some countries such as Spain, period leave is already a thing.

When I was a teenager myself, I missed school, and I struggled through exams in high school because of the severity of my menstrual cramps. I was not the only one. My experience was and is still something that many girls in boarding schools go through. For those of us who went through the Kenyan school system, it was not foreign for our teachers to accuse us of being dramatic when we complained of being in pain. They expected us to endure that pain with grace and in silence.

Because of medical misogyny, women and people of colour are generally treated poorly when it comes to pain management and maybe that is why period poverty is just packaged as the inability to afford ‘sanitary products’ when it is so much more than that. There is so much that goes into a woman’s body when she is having her monthly periods that cannot just be covered by sanitary towels. They are a necessity but they are not nearly enough. 

In a study conducted by YouGov, researchers found that 52 per cent of women had missed work at some point due to period pains. To tackle that issue, conversations about period leave have been numerous over the years but still, period pain is always forgotten when the conversation is about eradicating period poverty.

Period poverty includes not being able to afford a hot water bottle or pain relief for cramps. It includes not getting any medical attention when the pain is beyond what over-the-counter painkillers can handle. In one such case in a story covered by the Independent, a 15-year-old girl sleeping in Harare Gardens park became addicted to sniffing glue after being unable to get painkillers to help with her period pain.

That is how bad it can get when someone is cramping and yet we do not have enough data to know what period pain does to underprivileged kids from low-income backgrounds who do not have the luxury of having accessible healthcare. Even in schools, nurses are still accusing girls of pretending when they go to them complaining of menstrual cramps and that is still left largely unchecked.

Period pain is a reproductive health issue that deserves everyone’s attention. There is so much misinformation on pain management that includes sex being regarded as a balm for period pain and it all needs to be debunked because young girls do get pregnant because of the existence of such myths.

Those myths result due to the fact that the issue of pain relief is so massively overlooked in the mainstream conversation on period poverty, and women have to make do with the information that is available to them even though it stands to harm them in the end. There are people who genuinely believe giving birth will help them heal that pain and who can fault them for trying if they do not know any other way?

Adequate menstrual health management includes access to pain medication and education on alternate forms of pain management. It also includes working towards making systematic changes that ensure women receive adequate medical attention when they are in insurmountable pain. A lot of women live with conditions such as endometriosis without ever getting a diagnosis because they go through a lifetime without ever seeing a gynaecologist or a pelvic exam due to poverty. It shouldn’t be that way.

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