“African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.” -Wangari Maathai
From the time we became aware of our bodies, as young women we were directly or indirectly taught to “grin and bear” the pain and discomfort associated with “womanly issues”. Growing up in the Caribbean, it was considered taboo or inappropriate to mention that we were on our menstrual cycle and if we dared complain of cramps and how painful they were- from our family to the medical professionals we dealt with, we were simply told to deal with it.
Suffering in silence is disproportionately the norm for women, particularly those of Afro-Caribbean descent. This ideology has not only been restricted to gynecological health issues, but extends to other areas of the Afro-Caribbean female experience as well. Whether it be intimate relationships, mental health, academic struggles, financial hardships, maternal health concerns-we are expected to be the eager caretakers, strong backbone of the familial structure, suffering with grace and dignity and always persevering no matter the obstacles.
As women I don’t doubt that we are strong and resilient, however we should recognize the importance of speaking out and demanding advocacy for our health issues. A report by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) admitted that until recently, women were significantly under represented in all areas as it related to health research.
As it pertains to chronic illness, research has shown that women are affected at younger ages than men and due to a longer life expectancy, will have to endure the symptoms and side effects for a longer duration in comparison to their male counterparts. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, endometriosis, kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, lupus etc also carry a secondary mental burden with them. The associated symptoms and side effects of treatments and medications can adversely affect the patient’s everyday life. Even the most psychologically and emotionally resilient person can be caught off-guard by heavy emotions of self-pity, depression and anxiety.
I find it unfortunate that the conversation around women’s health and mental illness is still at times a taboo and difficult one in the Caribbean. Our women continue to downplay the seriousness of their health problems so as not to disrupt the everyday lives of those around them. As a Caribbean woman, I understand the problems that our women face each day. Currently pursuing my Masters in Public Health, I hope that my studies will highlight this important issue — in the hopes that our women no longer have to suffer in silence, free to be themselves without prejudice or judgment.
For more musings follow Julia Mandeville at @bajanendowarrior