Me: “I have my period.”
Male colleague: “AGAIN?”
Me: “Yes, it comes once a month.”
Male colleague: “It feels like you have it every day.”
Can I get a holler from my sisters who have endometriosis? It is not easy dealing with the two weeks of PMS. Or the constant backaches. And headaches. And vomiting. Or the feeling that a knife is scraping against your uterus for three days. Oh, and who can forget the diarrhoea.
It is even harder dealing with it in a country that likes to pretend that periods don’t exist.
In Cambodia, periods are a taboo topic. Many women don’t know anything about the purpose of periods, or how to maintain proper hygiene, as they rely on information from their mothers, who may have received incorrect information themselves. In Cambodia, women are told not to shower regularly during their period, as it is believed to affect the beauty of their skin. They are also told not to eat sour foods and fermented fish, as that increases the smell. Ice water and coconut juice is believed to block menstruation, so those are off limits, too.
I first told my workmates at Human and Hope Association that I had my period in early 2013. I was bent over in the office, wincing in pain and tapping my feet to try and alleviate the jackhammer in my stomach. When my workmate asked what was wrong, I told him that I had my period.
“What’s that?” he asked me.
“It means that blood is coming from my vagina,” I told him, not holding back.
The look of disgust on his face will stay with me forever. Despite having a mother and three sisters, he couldn’t comprehend that I was talking openly about my period. He didn’t say anything, instead, choosing to leave the room for a while. Perhaps to ponder how he ended up with me as a workmate? I’ll never know.
For the first 14 months of living in Cambodia, I only had access to a bicycle. Riding a bicycle to work, to the grocery store and to hang out with friends was great exercise. However, when it came to that time of the month when I had my period, I couldn’t bear to hop on. A journey that normally took me five minutes would take me 10. If I ran out of pads, I would have to ride 15 minutes into town to purchase them from the ‘Western’ grocery store and avoid eye contact with the person on the cash register who was secretly judging me for being a woman.
When I bought a motorbike, travelling whilst on my period became a more pleasant journey, though my pain wasn’t alleviated. I would drive my motorbike hunched over, nose scrunched up, body swaying back and forth to cope with the intense pain. But nothing helped.
Since the pain wasn’t subduing (the operation I had when I was 21 hadn’t helped in the slightest), I decided I needed to be very open about my period with my mostly male workmates, so they could understand the reason I was more impatient than usual once a month. Every month, I would tell them that my period had arrived and explained the symptoms with them. Well, half explained, half cried. For a couple of years, they would shy away (or sometimes, run away) from the conversation, not believing that this Australian girl was openly talking about the blood that was coming out of her. However, I persisted. Periods, as unpleasant as they are, are a normal part of life. The fact is, my workmates wouldn’t have been born without their mothers having their periods, so they needed to suck it up.
Eventually, I got through to them.
Me:“I am getting my period.”
Colleague:“Okay, stay home tomorrow.”
“I now understand about periods. They are so bad. When my future wife gets her period, I will make her rest for three days.” – Human and Hope Association Colleague.
Me:“I have stomach pains. Am I getting my period?”
Workmate:*Looks at watch* “Yes, I think you had it one month ago.”
Hearing about my period became such a normal part of life for my team, that when I suggested we include period education in our sewing classes and Khmer books about periods in our library, they didn’t resist. They welcomed this addition and agreed that it was important to educate the community about periods.
And, to keep up with routine, I still email them once a month to tell them I have my period.