Menstruation is a biological process but it is considered as taboo. Afsana Alam argues that to change the situation the first and foremost thing to be changed is the perception and conception about how we consider menstruation
MENSTRUATION is a biological process and nothing to be ashamed about but it is considered as taboo. How many times do you hear a girl talking about this biological process in a social setting? The answer would certainly be ‘barely’. But do you know why this is happening or ever try to change it? It is not only about the taboo or superstition, but many social and economic influences are there behind it. It refers to our perception towards women.
Almost every girl from this society experience the situation when they are in menstruation they cannot talk about their menstrual cramp in front of the male members, they feel hesitate to purchase sanitary napkins from the shops, they cannot bring the napkins uncovered to home, they cannot carry pads in front of their father and brothers.
The condition of the marginalised woman and girls, in this case, is worse. Once I went to Tejgaon slum to participate in a campaign programme on ‘creating awareness about menstrual and reproductive health’. I was not prepared to witness their utter misapprehensions toward menstruation.
I talked to a teenage girl who has just experienced period. Initially, she was very shy to talk and ran away from me. Later she shared that it was not a topic to discuss with others.
She girl said, ‘When I first experienced period, I was very scared. I went to my elder sister and told her about it. My sister told me to use old clothes. I asked why this is happening with me and she replied that this happens to every girls. But she prohibited me to talk about this in front of my brother and father. During the period, I have severe pain in my abdomen and waist. I cannot tell my father to bring medicine to me. If I do, he would ask what happened and I have to remain silent. I cannot observe Ramadan due to my menstrual cycle but I have to wake up every night and take the sehri because I have to hide from my father and brother that I am not fasting. It hurts when I cannot take food in the presence of them. I know other girls from this slum go through the same difficulties. However, it does not bother us more. This has become normal and we are accepting this.’
After the conversation, she again ran away with a smiling face. I wondered she even does not understand what is happening to her.
Most women living in this slum are not comfortable buying sanitary napkins there because shopkeepers are male. ‘Thus we feel embarrassed to ask for pads. Moreover, we feel very shy to dry the cloths under the sun those we use during the period’ added one girl.
A middle-aged woman was not interested to talk about this at all. ‘It is a curse on woman. Why do we need to talk about this? We are impure during the period and we have to keep ourselves away from any religious practice. We do not have enough money to buy foods and the sanitary napkin is beyond our affordability. This is a luxury for our girls. Therefore, we provide cloths to our girls. We have spent our lives in this way and our girls will be going through this as well’.
When women consider period as a stigma, it is less expected that men will be open-minded to it. I have talked with some of the men from the slum. The most terrifying thing is some of them were very aggressive talking about this. Even they considered period as a disease.
When I was very disappointed observing the overall situation, I found a ray of hope there. I met a girl of the secondary school level. She was very flexible talking about this issue unexpectedly.
She said, ‘I have learned about the period at my school. Apa (teacher) told us that this is a very natural process. Every adult girls experience this as they bring children to this world. She also taught us not to be embarrassed talking about the period. This is not a matter of shame. But I have to be absent in school during the menstrual cycle because it would be difficult to manage. We do not have facilities in school such as sanitary napkins or disposal bins. We also have been taught about the menstrual health and how to be clean and safe during the time and also what to eat for a healthy diet.’
There are lots of misconceptions and myths regarding this issue over the years. Some girls and women shared those. ‘It is commanded that we cannot go out of home after the afternoon as bad sprits may harm us. We cannot touch foods or things which are considered holy. For example, Muslim girls are not allowed to touch Islamic books or prayer-mat. Even they cannot stay around the people who pray. Hindu girls are prohibited to touch prayer elements and cows.’
The cloths they use are thought of as a symbol of impurity. Therefore they have to hide these from other family members.
Mothers do not feel free to discuss this with their daughters. As a result, the first period is a scary matter to most of the girls. They do not know how to go through this. They are not familiar with reproductive health or menstrual hygiene. This leads to infection and various diseases.
We cannot overlook menstruation and related matters as these are directly interrelated with reproduction. It does not require a lot to maintain menstrual hygiene. Small initiatives such as changing pads or cloths every six hours, wash cloths properly and dry under sunlight, eat plenty of water, fresh fruits and vegetables help to be protected during the period. These small practices have also become difficult due to the lack of knowledge and superstition.
To change the situation the first and foremost thing is to change the perception and conception about how we consider period. Now the question should be raised who will change it? The answer is ‘you’.
If you are aware of menstruation, be brave to openly discuss it with your family members. If you are a teacher, teach your students that menstruation is not a taboo. If you run an organisation, allow your female employees to get leave on the first day of period. If you are a policymaker, execute policies that would help to maintain menstrual hygiene. If you are a development worker, work in this area. If you are a volunteer, raise awareness regarding this in your community. Let’s break the silence together and it begins with you.
Afsana Alam is a student of the University of Dhaka.
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