Periods, Pregnancy, and Protecting Young Women: July 2021 Update
“You knit me together in my mother’s womb” I begin, reading from Psalm 139. “Munandiumba ndisanadwe ine,” Thoko reads from the Chichewa Bible. Her version translates closer to “You knew me before I was born,” which is no surprise, considering that Chichewa words for reproductive organs are considered so vulgar that Christians should never say them. More than sixty school-aged young women and forty married ladies fill the church. I know that talking about women’s health is taboo in many villages, and I’m about to project a picture of a womb on the church wall, so I know I need to start this off well. “The psalmist was a man, but even he knew that the womb was a place where important, even sacred processes happen. David says ‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’ Today I want to teach about the incredible things that happen inside a woman’s body, how that is part of how God made women special, and how we can stay healthy.” I remind them that Jesus healed a woman who was bleeding for too long, that the Bible shows that God cares about women’s health. As a doctor, as a Christian, as a woman myself, I want to share some teachings with them. I ask their permission to talk about these somewhat difficult topics in a church, and when they agree, Thoko and I dive in.
We talk about the inside parts of a woman – about the eggs, the tubes, the womb, the birth canal. We talk about the incredible design – farmers prepare fields every year with great difficulty, but a woman’s body prepares everything needed for life every month without her even thinking about it. The women applaud at parts and awkwardly avert their eyes or giggle at other parts. We talk about how to make periods less painful, and outward signs that a woman’s body is healthy or unhealthy. Thoko’s booming voice holds the whole group in attention. She joins me explaining the diagram on the wall, boldly points to her own belly for emphasis, and even dances little jigs now and then to drive points home as needed.
After fielding some questions, we approach in to even more difficult subjects: How women have the right to say no to unwanted relations, how any intercourse can lead to pregnancy, and how infections can lead to infertility later in life. How they shouldn’t stay quiet if an assault happens, because getting to a clinic within 2 days can make the difference between getting protective antiviral medications or getting HIV/AIDS. We tell the girls that their bodies are precious and they can speak up and should protect themselves. We know that we are standing against some cultural norms here, but we stand together, a female pastor and a female doctor, trying to at least plant the idea that these young women should value themselves. We call upon the older women in the room to protect these younger women so that they can finish school and build families of their own when they are ready. We acknowledge that this is an awkward topic, and unusual to discuss in a church. But I remind them of the times in the Bible which show how a woman’s body should be respected, and the consequences when it is not. “What better place is there than the church to protect young women and bring health to communities?” I ask. One woman stands up and says that this is a perfect teaching for the church, that the young women in this village need to learn to value themselves, and that the older women in the church can help protect them. As we finish up, my friend Roberta hands out re-usable cloth pads and a couple pairs of underwear to each young woman. There is giggling again as they try wrapping the pads around the underwear. For some, this will be the first time they own panties or pads. We pray that these little packs will help them stay in school throughout the month instead of staying home during every period.
This month, please join us in prayer for the young women of Malawi, that they will value themselves and grow to be healthy and happy. Please also pray for the local churches as they seek ways to help their communities find hope and healing.