The first menstruation: Wayuu mysticism

The menarche or first menstruation means a huge physiological change in a woman's body, but also a big event with a lot of myths and beliefs depending on the culture. Generally, this moment is the farewell of childhood and the beginning of adult life. 

Wayuu girls.

Wayuu girls. / Photo: Pixabay - Reference Image

The Woman Post | Ana María Betancourt

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In the Wayuu culture, a native community of northern Colombia and Venezuela exists a cultural tradition named 'el encierro' for the girls' first menstruation. This ritual prepares the young girls for women's life following the Wayuu Women's protocol guidelines, and for marriage. 

Wayuu people believe that if they follow the 'encierro' instructions, the woman would never have any fertility or menstruation problem (menstrual cramps, polycystic ovaries syndrome, endometriosis, etc). 

Estercilia Simanca, a Wayuu writer, says that "the 'encierro' it's not confinement, it's a room (or rancho, as we say) for the girl, with a wood and cactus fence around to keep her separated of everybody else. She can't be seen for anybody but, the woman who's teaching her the Wayuu Women's Protocol". 

There's a hammock away from the floor in that room, where the young woman stays all day. She only stands up at night or if she needs to relieve herself. But she doesn't need to go to the restroom a lot of times a day because she's not eating and is only drinking 'brebajes' to "debug the child's spirit inside of the body", says Simanca. They only know that the spirit it's out of the girl's body when she stands up and vomits because she gets dizzy. Throwing up is the child's spirit and rebellion. 

Also the ritual it's a preparation for marriage because "girl's skin gets whiter and she gets prettier to meet her future husband", says Vicenta Siosi, Wayuu writer. The skin bleaches because she's away from sunlight, she gets thinner because of the 'brebajes' and food prohibitions (she can't drink milk, eat meat, or consume something with sugar or salt). Also, her hair is cut until her ears' length to make her feel ashamed so she wouldn't want to be seen. 

The young woman takes a cold shower in the early morning during the 'encierro' "for a strong character, so she's not going to smile to every man, and the man who pretends her will not be coward because he will see that she´s strong", says Simanca. 

These are some of the teaching knowledge during the 'encierro':

  • Public behavior
  • When to talk or stay quiet
  • Wife and mother´s role
  • Cooking 
  • Traditional medicine
  • Weave

The girls know about the 'encierro' and the menarche since they are little, so when they have their first menstruation, they will tell the closest woman of the clan to live the' encierro'. 

The ritual is fundamental for Wayuu´s culture and social organization since it determines gender roles and behaviors in the community.