The red pen

A sharp, grinding pain swept across my lower abdomen in spasms. I winced and leaned over the desk, burying my face in the crook of my elbow and clutching my stomach with my left hand. I wished the teacher would not call out my name to read the next part of the passage we were studying. The text book I shared with Emily lay open on top of the wooden desk. It was an English lesson.

As if conspiring with fate, someone shouted my name. I cursed silently.

‘No, I don’t want Caroline reading today, she has been reading most passages every time. Today, I want a new person, whom we have not heard their voice in class before.’

‘Yes, Mariko, I want you to read for us the next paragraph.’

I was relieved.

The pain returned. It was excruciating. I bit my lower lip and curled my toes. My big toe dug into the dusty earthen classroom floor as if finding an escape hole for my agony. I didn’t have shoes; my polygamous father couldn’t afford to buy me a pair. He already had 20 children to take care of, born to him by the three wives he had married.

Seated at the end of the last row behind me, Mariko struggled through the paragraph, his poor reading skills forcing him to repeat himself every time.  At 17, and in Standard Six (year six), he was the oldest pupil in the entire school. Timid and shy, he rarely made friends and kept to himself. He started school late because his illiterate parents kept him at home herding cows. It was only when the Divisional Education Officer threatened his father with arrest that he agreed to let him to attend Tilingwo Primary School.

I wished Mariko could finish quickly so that the lesson could end but he dragged on and on. Then the room felt hot and my hands got clammy. I felt sick and wanted to vomit. The classroom span, I gasped for breath, leaned backward like somebody in a trance. Then a quiet moment passed and I didn’t feel anything.

I woke up to Emily kneeling next to me, shaking me violently by the shoulders and yelling out my name. Pupils surrounded me, others peeped through the door, while others peered over the curtain-less classroom window, trying to catch a glimpse of the commotion happening inside the standard six classroom.

‘Move away from the window, don’t you see that she needs some air!’ Someone shouted from the crowd.

Another pupil poured a pail of cold water over my head, its impact jolted me, and I almost missed my breath. Teacher Jacinta called for a refrain, shooing away the crowd of surging children. I wiped my face with my hands. They were getting so close; the smell of dust kicked by their feet, mixed with the splashed water almost suffocated me. I got confused and looked around, my eyes darting from one curious face to another like a cornered bird about to be lynched.

Teacher Jacinta and Emily held me under the shoulders and helped me up. A warm liquid flowed down my legs drenching my light blue dress as I stood up. The dress clung to my body like a sheer glove. I touched it, it was warm and sticky. I looked at my fingers and they were smeared in blood. Teacher Jacinta and Emily exchanged knowing glances. I started to cry as they led me out. I thought I had been injured.

We got out of the classroom. The crowd of pupils continued to follow behind us. It was break time and children were out and about. I could catch them looking at me with horrified faces. I was embarrassed and shaken by their looks.

We went behind the classrooms. Teacher Jacinta left us and went back to the staff room. She returned with a piece of white sponge and handed it over to me. ‘It is a cotton wool. It is going to soak the blood and keep you dry,’ she told me. She instructed me to go to toilet and place the sponge under my panty. The toilet was a school shared latrine (one toilet with a hole in the ground).

The bell ending midmorning break sounded while I was in the toilet. Pupils went back to class giving me and Emily time alone.

‘I don’t know how to tell you this,’ Emily sighed and held my hand when I got out of the toilet. ‘But don’t worry, nothing bad has happened to you. It is only that you have broken the red pen and spilled the ink.’

‘What is to break the red pen?’ I asked.

‘Every girl who has broken the red pen and spilled the ink is considered a woman,’ Emily said making it even more complicated.

‘A woman.. And ink? What do you mean? I don’t get it,’ I asked.

‘Caroline, stop being stupid, you have officially received your periods, meaning you’re no longer a child. What else do you think you are, if not a woman?’ She was so unforgiving. ‘Anyway, when you feel better, I will tell you more.’

Boys refused to enter the classroom for the next lesson. They said it had been adulterated by a woman’s blood.

The incident traumatised me. Every month, I skipped class when on my periods. I feared getting embarrassed in case my periods leaked. My mother couldn’t afford to buy me cotton wool or any other sanitary pad. It costed more than a day’s meal which was more important than a sanitary pad. I cut pieces from old blankets, torn clothes and flaky mattresses and used them as pads but since they couldn’t stick, they led to leakages. Again, I only had one pair of panties that I washed every time I had my bath and had to wait for it to dry in the sun.

At age 14 year, I was not aware of my sexuality. Norms and values forbade us all from discussing sex or anything around it. My mother and women in general were shy when it came to matters of sexuality. They either avoided the topic or brushed it aside during discussions. School absenteeism affected my grades and I performed poorly in class. I lost self-esteem and in standard eight I felt no reason to continue with schooling but Teacher Jacinta encouraged me to stay on.

Although I managed to go to high school through the government’s quota system, (a system that gave advantage to children from poor areas in Kenya to join high school) I didn’t get through to university.

The stigma around menstruation badly affects school attendance in girls around the world, particularly those who live under extreme poverty and in communities with crippling gender inequalities. Girls in rural Uganda for example, miss up to eight days of study each school term because they are on their periods, a study of menstrual management in Uganda revealed, The problem is compounded by lack of washrooms, lack of sanitary pads and bullying by peers. The eight days missed on studies, on average translates into 11% of the total learning days in a year. It’s a school absence rate that is hard for the girl to make up for and partly accounts for girls dropping out of school.

Around the world women and girls continue to suffer from lack of economic opportunity, inadequate health care and education, early marriages, sexual violence, gender violence and discrimination. The Guardian says 496 million women are illiterate, with significant hurdles to overcome in achieving the global goal of gender equality. The article further states that this is a proportion that has remained stubbornly unchanged for the past 20 years.

Numerous studies have shown that education of women and girls is the single most effective strategy to ensure the well-being of a successful nation. However, when girls are missing school because of an easily remedied issue like access to sanitary items and education around menstruation, they are starting from a position of disadvantage it’s hard for them to escape.

The provision of sanitary pads is one of the best ways to keep girls in these communities in school. Another one is the provision of gendered toilets that provide privacy to the girls. Gendered toilets, when used, offer privacy without the girls having to worry about the next person visiting the toilet being a boy or a male teacher. Due to cultural barriers, these young girls require education to understand why their bodies menstruate; they also need hygiene education on how to care for themselves when menstruating to avoid infections. The communities where these girls come from critically need education to make them appreciate the fact that, menstruation is a biological body changes associated with being a woman and not a curse.

Girl child education gives them greater power to choose the lives they would like to lead in the future.

Image: Sebastian Boguszewicz

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IMG_1456Caroline Yego was born in Kenya, East Africa. She worked in Television Production, Public Relations and now Health Care. She is an upcoming writer of memoirs and creative fiction. She lives in Cranbourne North, Melbourne, Victoria.

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