In Zimbabwe there are many myths around the subject of virginity and menstrual blood.
By Hazel Stede
1 Some people believe women should not walk among the cattle when they are menstruating as they may cause the cattle to lose their skin.
2 A woman must not put salt in the cooking or someone may get sick.
3 Women, when they are menstruating are unclean and not permitted to attend certain gatherings or church services.
4 If a man sleeps with a woman when she is menstruating, his back will break or his hair will fall out or he will lose his sexual appetite.
5 If someone is able to get hold of a woman’s menstrual blood, he or she will be able to use it for black magic.
6 Menstruation is something to be deeply ashamed of.
7 Menstruation should not be talked about and no one should know you are menstruating.
There is significantly more value and importance placed on the virginity of women than men. For women and girls, virginity is too often tied to moral character, purity, honor and social, moral and religious values.
Often times the virtue of a woman is determined by whether her hymen is intact or whether she bleeds on her wedding night. Yet there is no biological evidence that supports this myth.
Today, doctors believe the hymen is a remnant of fetal development. Some girls may be born without a hymen and every hymen is individual, ranging in shape, size, colour and flexibility.
The hymen changes throughout a woman’s life depending on age, stage of sexual development and hormonal levels. It is possible that during penetrative sex, the hymen may tear and the woman may bleed but it is equally likely that the hymen may stretch and not tear or that bleeding may not occur.
In many young girls, the act of playing sport, riding a bicycle, a donkey or even dancing may damage the hymen.
The hymen has relatively few blood vessels that, even when torn, may not bleed significantly. Research has shown that 40-63% of women or girls report not having bled following their first sexual experience and 50% of women and girls with previous intercourse had no signs of trauma to their hymen. (Myths Around Virginity; International Rescue Committee)
Having this information is crucial to understanding and believing that a girl is a virgin until she has sexual intercourse with a man. It is not and cannot be associated with the hymen or with using a tampon, a Butterfly Cup or inserting rolled up newspaper or rags. A girl is a virgin until she has sexual intercourse with a man.
In Zimbabwe research conducted by PSZ shows that 22% of 15-19 year old rural girls are mothers. This is not the figure for girls who have been or are sexually active, but for those who are mothers. In urban area it is 16%. The average age, in Africa, for a girl to experience her first sexual encounter is just 9 years old.
Whilst, as parents, we all would like to believe that our daughters are virgins, the reality is far from it. At the same time, this does not mean our girls are not virtuous, the high rate of child marriage and sexual assault means many of these encounters are not of our daughters making. Equally, using her body as a commodity, is often the only currency a girl has with which to earn money for essential items like sanitary wear.
Very rarely are men involved in the conversation of virginity or is it suggested that their participation be a factor in the large number of girls who have lost their virginity. Whilst girls are to remain virginal, boys are encouraged to gain sexual experience. The question left hanging is “with whom?”
With whom are they to gain this knowledge? And the answer is undoubtedly “with girls”. Somehow this connection is rarely, if ever made and it leaves girls as easy victims who must shoulder all the responsibility and consequences of any sexual encounter they may have outside of marriage.
This is the consequence of a patriarchal society where men have all or most of the power and importance. It is interesting to note that there are still very few societies in the world where women are considered to be equal to men.
Menstruation is undoubtedly the most defining factor that makes a woman a woman. It is therefore an easy tool, that men have, throughout history, used against women to keep them subservient and biddable. By creating myths and taboos around menstruation, men have been able to and continue to suppress women.
Menstruation and virginity provide men with the perfect tools with which to maintain control. For as long as women are told that they are unclean, that periods are shameful and that virginity must be proven, women and girls will always remain in a position of vulnerability and inequality.
The fallout of this perception has far reaching consequences and starts with the high drop -out rate experienced by girls at senior school level. At 14 years over 80% of Zimbabwean girls are attending school but by 18 years less than 40% are still in education. In comparison 70% of boys are still in education at 17 years of age. (PSZ)
One of the factors contributing to this drop- out rate is the lack of sanitary wear available for girls, another is teenager pregnancy and following on from that is early marriage. If girls are not in school they are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted, are 3x more likely to contract HIV Aids, will earn 25% less than their contemporaries who complete secondary education and be more likely to have large families.(CAMFED).
All of which perpetuates the poverty cycle and reduces the ability of a girl to reach her full potential.
Whilst men may have instigated this mindset towards menstruation it would be wrong to assume they are the only ones holding to it. Discussing menstruation and menstrual health is still a very difficult conversation for many women to have and some would rather bind themselves to cultural beliefs that no longer serve than address the issue of providing accurate education and support for girls reaching puberty today.
This lack of knowledge, coupled with economic hardship, invariably means girls are practicing unsafe menstrual hygiene and are often forced to use inappropriate substitutes for safe sanitary wear. These include rags, grass, leaves, mattress stuffing, curtain fabric, ground up mealie cobs and smoked cow dung. As the majority of girls do not own a pair of pants, they are, of necessity inserting these products into their vagina. The sexual reproductive health issues that ensue can be serious and lifelong.
To conclude, keeping girls in school with safe sanitary wear should be a priority and not be derailed by taboos that are not based in fact. That our girls may reach their full potential and contribute to the growth and success of Zimbabwe going forward. That we may be world leaders by investing in the welfare of girls and contributing to their rise in social standing and education.
Hazel Stede writes in her own capacity as Sexual Reproductive Health advocate