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  • Writer's pictureAisha Salaudeen

My cramps are killing me, so we must talk about periods.


A calendar detailing periods and PMS
At any given moment, 800 million women and young people worldwide, including myself battling cramps to write this essay, are menstruating.

I was seated in a room with dozens of candidates, about to take my JAMB exam, when my period made an unexpected appearance. This surprise visit was far from welcome and came with a surge of pain and discomfort.


I remember signaling the invigilator, Mrs. Gbadebo, hoping to be excused to secure a pad and take a painkiller, bracing for the wave of pain ahead.


JAMB, for context, is one of the many entrance exams required for a university spot in Nigeria. Unlike tests taken in the familiar environment of one’s secondary school, JAMB is externally administered. This placed me amidst strangers in an unfamiliar setting.


Given our shared womanhood, I had expected empathy from Mrs. Gbadebo. But I was mistaken. “And you’re even announcing that your menstruation surprised you. You should be ashamed,” she said.


Her words shocked me, but I recognized her sentiment. I’d been raised with a strict code of silence surrounding periods. The monthly bleed was a matter of secrecy and I had always been taught that any public acknowledgment was inappropriate.


So, when Mrs. Gbadebo told me off that day, I got it. Like the women in my family, she saw it as immoral to mention menstruation publicly, especially in mixed company.


But given my circumstances, discretion was a luxury I couldn’t afford. I was about to attempt one of the most critical exams of my life, I needed to quickly address the situation and focus on my academic goals. After some negotiation, Mrs. Gbadebo grudgingly gave me five minutes to manage the crisis and then resume my test.


In that brief time, one compassionate student offered her extra pad, and another lent me a scarf for added cover. After those whirlwind moments, I was back in my seat, my pen ready for action. And amidst that chaos, I aced the exam.


Historically, periods have been a source of discomfort or anger, as seen in that JAMB class incident. Menstruation is a natural sign of a healthy body and is experienced by approximately half the world's population for much of their lives. So, why is it so stigmatized and shrouded in embarrassment?

Pads and tampons
More than half of menstruating women experience pain around their period

Cultural and, to some extent, religious beliefs label monthly bleeding as "unclean." These misconceptions, paired with societal gender norms and limited understanding of the female body, contribute to the silence around menstruation.


Menstruation is a natural sign of a healthy body and is experienced by approximately half the world's population for much of their lives. So, why is it so stigmatized and shrouded in embarrassment?

Our male-dominated society has historically overlooked female experiences, and commercial interests have pushed for discretion in menstrual products. Over time, these factors have come together to create a self-perpetuating taboo of quietness regarding periods.


This silence does more harm than good.


While it's easier said than done, we, as women, need to take baby steps to share our stories, experiences, and feelings about menstruation. In doing so, we can normalize the conversation and shatter the silence surrounding periods. This will, in turn, reduce the undue stigma and embarrassment associated with menstruation, empowering both young girls and women to discuss openly, seek assistance, and better understand their bodies.


At 15, I first experienced the agonizing pain of menstrual cramps. As I curled up on my dorm room floor, my roommates huddled around me, clueless about how to ease my sudden pain. While many details from that day are hazy, the searing pain remains etched in my memory. Month after month, I came to accept these severe cramps as normal, frequently resorting to medication for relief.


However, it wasn't until I was 22 at university that an acquaintance studying pharmacy informed me such intense menstrual pain wasn't normal. Initially hesitant, I confided in her and learned that in some instances, such pain might point to more severe medical conditions.


Although I initially overlooked her suggestion to seek medical attention, she was right. By 25, I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids, revealing that the source of my painful periods was the large tumors in my uterus. Had I been more forthcoming about my experiences earlier, I might have received a diagnosis sooner, sparing me years of suffering from the effects of the fibroids. I later underwent a myomectomy to remove them. While some pain persists, it's considerably diminished.


A scan showing fibroids in the uterus
Fibroids are non-cancerous growths that develop in or around the womb (uterus)

My regret over not speaking out about my periods is why I am an advocate for open discussions about menstruation. Honest conversations about menstruation lead to better understanding and knowledge, which is crucial for reproductive and sexual health. It ensures that everyone, especially women, has access to accurate information about periods, paving the way for informed decisions and healthier lives.


The average woman menstruates once a month for roughly 35 to 40 years – which equates to about 3,000 days or 8.2 years of periods over her lifetime. At any given moment, 800 million women and young people worldwide, including myself battling cramps to write this essay, are menstruating.


The bottom line is periods are an inevitable part of the female experience. It's essential that we make this "time of the month" more manageable, open, and free from shame.


The average woman menstruates once a month for roughly 35 to 40 years – which equates to about 3,000 days or 8.2 years of periods over her lifetime. At any given moment, 800 million women and young people worldwide, including myself battling cramps to write this essay, are menstruating.

It's high time we discard the old fashioned notions of shame and secrecy attached to menstruation. Let’s talk openly about our periods. Doing this not only combats ignorance and prejudice but also fosters an environment of support, understanding, and empowerment for women.


After all, there's nothing "taboo" about being human.


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