Ever noticed how men try to tie women’s health problems to either pregnancy or their menstrual cycle?
Expressions of pain by women to our men folk are often met with questions like: “Are you pregnant?” or “Is it that time of the month?”
It’s as though women have only one body part and their health revolves solely around their reproductive cycle.
True, some problems are related to the monthly period or pregnancy. However, not all problems are tied to these two regular occurrences. There is more to women than their wombs and not every health problem is related to our reproductive cycles.
Women, like other human beings, get headaches, sore throats, toothaches, common colds, swollen feet and tummy aches for other reasons than their menstruation or pregnancy.
It’s annoying though, that when a woman talks about her pain, most men rush to conclude that her problem is related to her reproductive system.
I remember having a terrible flu coupled with tonsillitis recently. As it was during a public holiday, I went to a 24 hour pharmacy for some over-the-counter medicine. After describing how I felt to the pharmacist, who happened to be a man, I assumed he had understood and would give me the most appropriate medicine.
He brought some medication, which I purchased without asking any questions. After all, he had the appropriate training and I’m just a lay woman so I trusted him to make the best health decision for me based on the information I had provided. My assumptions were clear – the pharmacist and I were partnering to ensure that my health was restored. In return, he would get his profit – it was a simple, neat deal.
The flu was particularly painful so I took the medication as per the pharmacist’s instructions, yet my condition did not change. I chided myself for being impatient when I did not see immediate results. After all, not all medication works instantly.
Two days later, I was still suffering and there was no improvement despite swallowing every pill religiously at the recommended time. I concluded that the medication was not effective at all and it was time to visit the doctor, now that the public holiday was over and the prolonged flu was preventing me from enjoying my life.
Out of curiosity, I did an internet search on the medication the pharmacist had given me and lo and behold, it was not for flu. The man had given me tablets for period pains! I had a flu and tonsillitis not period pains, but no, the man had concluded that being a woman, my pain must be tied to my reproductive system!
Naturally, I was irritated and as soon as I recovered I called the pharmacy to tell them not to repeat their dangerous assumptions that all pain suffered by women is related to their reproductive system.
Having worked for an organisation that advocates for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, I should not have been surprised at all. One of the main reasons women did not seek timely health interventions for sexual and reproductive problems was that they were shy. Part of the reason was cultural as it was considered taboo to discuss such intimate details of one’s health with a male stranger. Consequently, when attended to by a male doctor or nurse, the women would claim to have a headache or some other ailment on a “normal” body part that could be safely discussed with strangers. The onus was on the male health practitioner to probe and conclude what the problem might be. That, perhaps, could be the reason for the pharmacist’s assumption in my case.
In the absence of an accurate guess, this would result in multiple visits to the clinic until per chance the woman was attended to by a female health practitioner whom she could open up to.
While these might have been the realities at some stage, particularly in conservative societies, it does not follow that all women are too embarrassed to discuss their reproductive health and conclusions should be made on their behalf. The world has changed and systems to accommodate “shy” women have been put in place. Communities have figured ways to communicate difficult topics with their health service providers, while women have become more liberated and can express themselves. Clearly, one has to understand the society they are working in before making assumptions. What is suitable for a conservative, highly religious community, may not be appropriate for a metropolitan society, so the same assumptions cannot be applied across the board.
As I write this, I have a tummy ache and no, it is not “that time of the month!” I happen to have binged on some unhealthy foods. I am very capable of expressing what I’m feeling to my doctor and if it were period pains, I would know. However, instead of sensitivity to my pain, what I’m getting from my male counterparts are “knowing looks” as they conclude that I must be either pregnant or having my period.
Clinging to old assumptions that period and labour pains are the only pain women can ever suffer is dangerous as it could lead to misdiagnosis. Its time for people to realise that there is more to women than reproduction. Women fulfil a bigger role in society than child birth and have other body parts that are used for other purposes outside reproducing.