Young women: Seven myths about menstruation and reproductive health
Lerato Makate, Spotlight
Sexual and reproductive health education being taught in South African
schools has left some female learners and young women feeling less confident about the right time to engage in sexual activity, about what to do when their menstrual cycle comes, and even about understanding how contraceptives should be used.
This is according to nursing sister Anna Moloi, the acting head of Department of the Campus Health Clinic Services at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Moloi says the clinic has had several encounters and consultations with female students – mostly in their first year of tertiary education – who were experiencing their menstrual cycle for the first time, and did not understand what was happening or what they needed to do.
She says that as a result, the clinic has seen the need to conduct thorough consultations, including one-on-one sessions, explaining to these young women the process their bodies are undergoing.
“A lot of them, especially the young ones [students], will come with menstrual pains. What we normally do is to advise them on what menstruation is; because in high school, they do not get a lot of [reproductive health] education,” Moloi says.
Menstruation, or having periods, is normal vaginal bleeding that occurs as part of a woman’s monthly cycle. Every month, the female body prepares for pregnancy. If no pregnancy occurs, the uterus, or womb, sheds its lining. The menstrual blood is partly blood and partly tissue from inside the uterus. It passes out of the body through the vagina.
Periods usually start between the ages of 11 and 14, and continue until menopause at about age 51. They usually last from three to five days. Besides bleeding from the vagina, there may be:
- Abdominal or pelvic cramping pain
- Lower back pain
- Bloating and sore breasts
- Food cravings
- Mood swings and irritability
- Headache and fatigue
Explaining the persistent myths concerning women’s menstrual cycles, Moloi says there are still many young women who need accurate information on and a thorough explanation of sexual activity and how it can affect the menstrual cycle. Despite the sexual and reproductive health education taught in South Africa’s schools, many young women continue to believe these myths about menstruation.
Here are seven menstruation and sexual reproductive health myths:
- You will not get pregnant if you ‘douche’ after sex. Many people wonder if douching with either regular douching fluid or bubbly cooldrink (such as Coca-Cola) can get all the sperm out after sex, effectively preventing pregnancy. The truth is that it won’t. Biologically, women’s vaginal muscles contract during orgasm as the body’s way of bringing the semen toward her eggs; so even if you douche immediately after sex, some of the sperm will already be too deep to be flushed out. Plus, douching with soda or other liquids not meant for that purpose can cause irritation and infection, which is also not a good thing.
- If you do not have a condom, you can use a balloon. No plastic baggie/rubber band or balloon/twist-tie combination will provide the protection of a traditional, approved condom. And it may not even stay on. The ones you’ll find on shop shelves are electronically tested to meet strict standards of strength, reliability, and resistance to tearing. Frankly, it costs about the same amount of money to buy the real thing, which offers far more reliable protection. Also, many clinics will give you free condoms.
- You will not fall pregnant if you have sex while standing up, or if the woman is on top during sexual activity. If you have vaginal intercourse, it doesn’t matter if you’re up, down, sideways or even under water; the woman can still get pregnant. The one ‘position’ that won’t cause pregnancy is oral sex, because no semen enters the woman’s vagina – though oral sex does have its own set of health risks, including STD transmission.
- You will not fall pregnant if you have sex during ‘safe times’, i.e. various periods during the menstrual cycle and ovulation cycle. While the average female’s monthly cycle may be 29 days, others may have a cycle that varies from 20 to 40 days, or even longer. A woman’s likelihood of falling pregnant rises and falls throughout her ovulation cycle; the likelihood that a woman will fall pregnant one to two days after she starts bleeding is nearly zero. But the likelihood increases with each successive day, even though she’s still bleeding. At roughly day 13 after starting her period, her chance of pregnancy is an estimated 9 per cent. While these numbers may be low, it means a woman can never be 100 per cent assured that she won’t fall pregnant during her period.
- You will not fall pregnant the first time you have sex. It is thought by many people that sex for the first time will not get a woman pregnant. This is far from the truth; having sex without the use of contraception can get a woman pregnant, irrespective of whether she is having sex for the first time or has had it plenty of times before. Pregnancy depends on fertility, which can be a very irregular thing. It might take months or even years of desperate trying for some women to conceive, while others might conceive whenever they have sex, even if it is their first time and they have no desire to be pregnant. Pregnancy is a possibility every time a woman and a man engage in intercourse. The only requirement is that a sperm must reach an egg.
- Because you have started using the pill, you will not fall pregnant. This is a myth; it is incorrect information. The pill is 99 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy. Even so, every year between two and eight per cent of women who use it become pregnant.
- If you urinate after sex, you will not fall pregnant. This is a myth, and a misconception about or misunderstanding of female anatomy, by both men and women. For people with vaginas, the tube you urinate through (the urethra) is not the same tube a penis ejaculates into during sex (the vagina). Many people don’t realize these are two separate holes, because the urethra is often very tiny, and right next to the vaginal opening. Urinating after sex won’t rinse sperm out of the vagina, because you don’t urinate out of your vagina.
Lesedi Mashinini, a first-year film and television student, shared her experience.
“In primary school, they taught us about menstruation, sex, and all that. But in high school, I don’t remember them teaching us. I don’t remember a lot of details from when I learned about having my periods,” Mashinini says.
“I know how to take care of myself during my period because of help from my sister and my mom, about what I had to do the first time I had it. So now, I’m more confident about what I need to do.”
Marona Seekane, a postgraduate student, says that menstruation as a topic was only covered properly and thoroughly in Life Sciences from about Grade 10 in high school; and it was only then that she started feeling as though she knew what was happening in her body.
“I don’t think that sex education was done properly, because almost all the knowledge that I have, I read up on by myself. The basics were covered in Life Orientation, where we were told that sex without protection would lead to STIs, pregnancy and HIV,” Seekane says.
“Things like HPV I only learned about when I got to varsity. I only started feeling confident about sexual health after I had done some research of my own.”