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Menopause in South Africa

As you deal with yet another hot flash or sleepless night, having a positive view of menopause seems either laughable or improbable. But consider for a moment that in some parts of the world including South Africa, women accept and even celebrate menopause. Sound impossible?

South Africa, as is the case with many nations, has lacked a comprehensive menopause profile that would aid healthcare providers in educating and treating their patients. Part of the investigation involves understanding cultural influences on menopause and aging, particularly as women leave their childbearing years behind. Is it different for women living in any particular country? What about the dangers of stereotyping?

In a recent community base-controlled study focusing on Black women, South African researchers set out to learn how menopause affects women socially, psychologically, and emotionally. True every woman experiences menopause uniquely. But interesting patterns emerge that provide insight into aging and status. Social supports at the family and community levels play a crucial part in determining women’s roles in their social networks.

To be sure, the study is a small sample limited by its reach yet it still speaks volumes in terms of menopause attitudes be they positive or negative. It is impossible and unethical to place all South African women into one convenient category. Yet this study demonstrates the strong connections between social values and roles in the home and beyond.

One hundred and sixty-four women participated in a questionnaire interview; 62 women were in perimenopause or just ending menopause and the remaining 102 women were in postmenopause.

An astounding 96% of the women overall reported receiving an elevated status in their communities and acknowledged menopause as a significant contributor. The same number of women further solidified this opinion based on freedom from pregnancy, pregnancy complications, and a renewed feeling of physical purity.

South African society still regards motherhood as the most important role for women and arguably, once past childbearing women may no longer have a purpose. However, there is not so much an end to purpose as a shift, or the ‘Grandmother Hypothesis.’

The ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’ loosely stems from the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ notion or what might be called it takes older women to guide their communities using acquired life skills, insight, and wisdom. In the home, middle age or menopause allows older women to assist their daughters or daughters-in-law who are rearing the next generation. At the greater community levels, in some cases, women become eligible to serve on councils and offer their sage advice on par with the males.

These opportunities may not be equal and the picture is not always fundamentally sound. Black women in South Africa face many political and economical challenges as well as uphill battles for racial equality. Yet we can learn from their example and know that menopause and aging do bring life changes but not life endings.

For the women participating in this study, they do affirm that not all is miserable during and after menopause. Strong social and cultural traditions revere rather than repel older citizens making older women viable members of society. Solid relationships and the micro and macro levels gives women better coping mechanisms to deal with menopause and the aging process.

Matsela Lineo (ZA) University of Limpopo “Positive Attitude of Black South African Women to Menopause” as presented at the 13th World Congress on Menopause, Rome 2011.

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