Why is it okay to speak about male circumcision but not vaginal care, male condoms but not femidoms?

Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
  • I'm a firm believer in equality and the notion that men and women can work together to balance power dynamics and patriarchal issues that still exist in our society.
  • However, one can't ignore the deeply entrenched belief that women have to be apologetic about their need to access information about their reproductive health.
  • We can do better to encourage women to speak about issues that affect them without fear of judgement and being labelled as perverts.

Many women have never looked at their vaginas (some will flinch just reading the word too). How do we even begin to speak about sexual abuse when we can't even say the word vagina? It's not a swear word, it's not sexual, and it certainly isn't filthy.

The veil of secrecy that covers discussions around female genatilia has resulted in many women being duped into purchasing exorbitantly priced products to clean themselves due to the misogynistic myth that female genitals are "dirty".

Experts have said numerous times that there is no more needed than using clean water, but the myth is more prevalent than the truth and has led to millions being spent on these totally unwarranted products. 

READ MORE: This R300 vaginal brush for cleaning 'period debris' is cut from the ancient cloth of misogyny

Intimate hygiene is not the only time that female genitals are the subject of damaging, falsely held beliefs.

W24 recently published the harrowing story of Khadija Gbla, who experienced female genital mutilation at the tender age of nine. Years later, she figured out what had happened to her that night when she was lured into a dark hut and part of her body stolen, on her mother's request under the belief that she was protecting her daughter from becoming promiscuous.

Khadija had to figure out what had happened to her on that dreadful night on her own. This is the sad reality for many girls and women today who go through life not knowing how to take care of their genitals, and afraid to ask because society still believes it's disgusting, unnecessary, and a sign of unhealthy sexual behaviour to seek information of that nature.

Many use the first "intimate cleaning" product or sanitary pad they can find - often leading to detrimental consequences, including diseases and infertility in some cases. 

READ MORE: Sexual abuse will remain the ‘safest’ crime to commit because people know that it is most likely going to go unreported

In contrast, many people are very young when they learn about male circumcision. The same applies to the male condom; both men and women know how to use it, where to buy it, how to care for it, when it expires, how to discard it, etc.

The femidom has never quite been able to match its counterpart, and to date, not many people know where to buy one, let alone use it, despite it being lauded as an equally efficient substitute for the male condom.

At one point, not much was known about the male condom, too, and massive investment by government, private sector agencies, and NGOs went into promoting its use.

Almost every filling station in this country has an array of male condoms on display - including scented, coloured, ribbed, you name them. Meanwhile, for some reason, the femidom never received the same amount of publicity, and its promotion resembled nothing more than an after-thought by a handful of organisations. Moreover, you'd be hard-pressed to find a female condom for purchase.

READ MORE: WATCH: Meet the Maasai woman trying to stop female genital mutilation

Power still sits comfortably in men's hands when it comes to intimacy issues and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Women still have to "ask" their men to use a condom. In many cases, particularly in relationships where there is an imbalance of power and abuse, they are forced to succumb to whatever the man decides.

There are other ways in which male reproductive health is seen as more critical than that of women.

Politics of initiation schools aside, the mere fact that they exist - predominantly for male circumcision - is a testament that for eons, humanity has known and cared about the sexual wellbeing of boy children and men.

However, even today, discussions around vaginal health are seen as crass and sexual - this could not be further from the truth. It is unhelpful for women who want (and need) to speak about their wellbeing to have to consistently justify why this is an issue that begs discussion. 

READ MORE: 'I survived genital mutilation, now I'm helping end it'

Vaginal health issues should not be whispered about in the night, among a select group of people. It's a critical part of every girl and woman's life that needs to be discussed openly just like any other issue, such as circumcision, so she is empowered to make positive choices about her intimate care and sexual health, among other things.

It's heartbreaking that columns such as this have to be written to justify why women have the right to access information that's critical in ensuring that they have the fundamental human right to health care.

Surely, as a people, we can do better not only to allow but also to embrace access to information, particularly for women who are often marginalised and denied an opportunity to be active participants in their own lives.

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