The personal observation of humanitarian writer Niki Taiwia regarding the dangers of Vanuatu kastom for not preparing and educating our girls about menstruation and reproductive health.
Menstruation is called by many names in Vanuatu – sick moon (sik mun), rags, period or ‘taem blong missus’. Often a tabu topic, it is simultaneously seen as a sign of virtue and youth. Every woman experiences her period differently. It can be painful or pain free, heavy or light, joyful or stressful.
Have you ever missed your period and were worried you were unexpectedly pregnant? Or have you ever gotten your period when you hoped you would have been pregnant but month after month you are not?
It’s an age-old question – is menstruation a curse or a blessing?
Some think that in biblical terms it is a curse from when God suggested women were unclean and impure. They were required to hide and not go into public places or be touched by any man during her menstruation.
For many modern and developed countries menstruation is seen as the norm and women menstruating are no different to women who aren’t. These modern societies have even tried to make it easier for women by installing sanitary disposal units in every female toilet and manufacturing the latest pads and tampons so that we are able to continue to swim, work and live our lives with few limitations. If you have enough money you can even purchase new inbuilt sanitary underpants that can be washed like you would your normal underwear.
Unfortunately there are some other countries where having your menstruation can severely impact your life. Many girls miss out on school and women lose days at work due to not having access to toilets or sanitary products. It is widely documented that many girls drop out of school altogether when they start menstruating, which often leads to child marriage and consequently an increased risk of maternal mortality.
Rags, calico and even leaves are used as an alternative sanitary measure in many countries, including our beautiful tropical Vanuatu. This is a place where many of our community members still view sik mun a tabu time for women to be in public, to cook or even look at or touch a man’s food. Some of us are customarily expected to hide in a special hut at the end of a village due to a fear that we will make men sick.
In some cultures across Vanuatu our first sik mun is celebrated with a feast or a ceremony will be performed where intricate patterns are cut into our back and arms with either bamboo-like cane or more commonly used today, a piece of broken glass from a Tusker bottle.
In some of our islands girls are expected to marry or are betrothed on the day of their very first period. Sadly many girls’ fates are sealed at a very young age. This is a very sad but real fact of life in Vanuatu.
After living here for many years and having even been initiated into the Tanna kastom of back cutting, I have had the privilege of being exposed to many interesting, amazing and often horrifying stories of womens’ experiences dealing with life in Vanuatu.
Sadly we as mammas and big sisters don’t talk about sik mun to our daughters and also fail to educate our sons. Personally I knew what a period was at the young age of 10 and was more than ready to deal with such a change of life when it finally did come.
Unfortunately many girls in Vanuatu lack basic information regarding their menstrual health and consequently have a very different experience to mine.
Here is one girl’s story of her menstruation experience in Vanuatu. It is not an isolated case.
When I was small I didn’t know anything about sik mun. Nobody ever spoke to me about it, not even my own mother. The day that my sik mun finally arrived I was not prepared at all. I hope that by sharing my experience it will shed light on the very real situation of countless girls in Vanuatu and will lead to a change in the way we approach such an important but natural part of our lives as Ni-Vanuatu women.
This is what happened to me on the day that sik mun first appeared in my life.
There was a time when I was around 15 years of age when I felt a little different to normal and I was playing with my friends around the house and garden. I felt that my skirt was wet and just thought that I sat on something wet and continued playing.
After a while I felt that my skirt was really wet and turned around to see my skirt and in complete shock saw that it was saturated with blood. I was horrified and scared; I had no idea where the blood came from or what was wrong with me. I thought I was going to die – I was also scared that someone would see me and confirm to me that I indeed was going to die.
I ran into the toilet and I checked myself my worst fears were confirmed – my underpants were full of blood and I was sure that I was going to die soon.
I stayed in the toilet for a few hours until it was no longer day but night. I was afraid someone would see me and ask me what was wrong with me. I eventually left the toilet when no one was around and went into the house and locked the door to my room. I sat crying for hours because I was afraid – I thought that my blood would continue to run until there was none left and I was dead.
My sister arrived home with her baby and called out to me to go to the store to buy diapers for her baby. I was afraid that my sister would see the blood so I stayed in my room.
My sister called out to me three more times to go to the store and I just shouted in reply, ‘mi no wantem’. My sister shouted, ‘wanem i rong lo yu?’ I just said nothing was wrong.
My sister came into my room and saw that I was huddled in the corner crying with my back to the wall. She persisted to ask me what was wrong and must have seen some blood on me. She said ‘What’s wrong with you? Let me have a look at you’. She pulled me up onto my feet and turned me around.
She said ‘Don’t be afraid, you’re a big girl now. Yu kat sik mun’. My sister told me that this was normal and it happens to every girl. She said ‘yu no mas ting se yu wan nomo we bae yu luk samting ia’ – (‘You shouldn’t think that this only happens to you’).
My sister said ‘Let’s have a shower and I will teach you how to change’. I had never seen a Stayfree sanitary pad before and I felt uncomfortable using it. It felt like I was wearing a diaper but I decided it was better than people asking me questions about blood on my skirt. I then begged my sister not to tell anyone about my sik mun, she agreed and promised not to tell.
My sister told me that I should see my sik mun every month and that if I didn’t see my sik mun, it meant I was pregnant. Then she told me not to go stay with any boys. She said if I went too close to a boy that I would become pregnant. After that I was afraid to go too close to a boy or even talk or touch a boy just in case I would get pregnant.
After this I didn’t see my sik mun for almost an entire year. No one explained to me that my period might be irregular. I was scared that I was pregnant despite staying away from every boy. I lived in terror for almost an entire year until my sik mun resumed itself when I was around 16 years old.
At this time I was living with my mum again and didn’t have a Stayfree with me. I went to my mum and asked her for 100 vatu so I could go to the store. My mum asked me what I wanted the money for. I told her that it was for Stayfree. Then my mum asked me what I wanted to do with a Stayfree.
I told her I had my sik mun, my mum asked me if it was my first time. I lied and said yes. My mum asked me if I knew how to use Stayfree and I said ‘Yes’. My mum asked me ‘Who told you how to use that?’ I told her that my sister did.
My mum went to buy a Stayfree for me and I went to change. While I was changing my mum went to tell my whole family that I had sik mun. When I finished changing my mum and dad went to buy chicken and rice and all my family came to celebrate that I had my first sik mun. I was just glad that it wasn’t really my first sik mun because it would have been so embarrassing if it was.
My aunties all sat me down and told me everything about sik mun and pregnancy. They told me what I should and shouldn’t do and it was during this time I discovered how women really get pregnant and that I’d been scared of boys the entire time for no good reason.
Looking back I feel that my family, especially my mum, failed me. Someone should have educated me when I was younger about what to expect. I went through all that worry for no good reason.
Mi wantem telem nomo i go long ol mama – mi telem se taem gel i kam long wan age yu mas tokbaot sikmun long em bifo hemi luk. Hemi responsibiliti blong yumi ol mama.
Yu mas tijim ol pikinini blong yumi gel wetem boi togeta abotem bodi blong olgeta. Yumi no mas ting se i tabu blong tokbaot.
Samtaem yumi no telem aot ol samting long pikinini. Yumi ting se i gud, yumi no mekem ol pikinini oli worri o spoilem ting ting blong olgeta festaem.
Be hemi responsibiliti blong yumi blong edukatem olgeta.
As told to Niki Taiwia, a local humanitarian journalist, who works for a not-for-profit organisation in Vanuatu.
Niki has set up a safe house for Ni-Vanuatu children from difficult backgrounds (disability and victims of sexual abuse) and assists single mothers with the ultimate goal of empowering people who are in vulnerable positions.
The passionate human rights activist says, ‘I believe in the power of advocacy and providing a voice for those who want to tell their stories but are fearful or not confident in doing so. Many issues in Ni-Vanuatu culture are seen as taboo to talk about but it is essential to bring these topics to light to change women’s position in society.’
Through her advocacy, Niki has met many vulnerable women who recognize the benefit of sharing their stories as not only a form of therapy and relief, but also as a way to empower and give hope to others who are in similar situations.
Sista Magazine is honoured to collaborate with Niki to assist women in vulnerable and disadvantaged situations to share their stories. ‘This is a way in which we can hear women and girls’ stories and raise a voice through embracing each other,’ says Niki. ‘So Speak Up Sista!’