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Monthly ordeals

  • Published at 05:15 am May 28th, 2021

The concept of keeping everything about menstruation behind the doors still exists in Bangladesh

“Hush! Don’t talk about this with your friends. People shouldn’t know about your secret.”

“Don’t eat this, don’t touch that while you’re on your period.” 

Throw in the ridiculous taboos that cloud menstruation -- not being allowed to bathe, forced into seclusion not being allowed to eat certain things, restraining to perform some other activities (other than religious) such as cooking or travelling, a woman’s life is made quite oppressive, riddled with health hazards. For any menstruating woman, the entire process of bleeding for almost a week is taxing -- both physically and emotionally.

Moreover, access to timely and necessary guidance to adolescent girls regarding puberty is a rare thing to observe in Bangladesh. The harsh truth is one of the things that our diverse social classes have is a taboo about what is a natural process. “It is a shameful secret; don’t talk about it in public is the most common advice a girl gets from her family and society. 

The concept of keeping everything about menstruation behind the doors still exists in Bangladesh. Yes, we have moved ahead in many ways -- however, to what extent?

The taboo

Rafia Ahmed was strictly instructed by her mother not to talk about her period with any outsider. In fact, she was asked to keep everything about her menstruation out of sight -- starting from cleaning to drying -- so that no one, especially male members in the family, can get the slightest hint of her menstruating. In some parts of Bangladesh, girls are confined to staying indoors upon having their first menstruation.

The Bangladesh National Hygiene Survey 2018 states that 50 percent of adolescent girls and 64 percent of women used old cloth for menstrual hygiene management. The Use of disposable pads among adolescents is 43 percent and women 29 percent.

Women from conservative and low-income families are usually informed about menstruation by close family members or peers. And that leaves them with nothing but a bunch of wrong information from the very first stage. The schools in the country that provide education on menstrual hygiene at the moment is still rare to be practised properly. Despite information about puberty being included in textbooks, the school authorities are reluctant to teach the material to the girls. Relatives being the most common sources girls and women first heard or learnt about menstruation, the percentage of learning about menstruation from teacher id only 3.5 percent stated in Bangladesh National Hygiene Survey 2018.

According to a baseline survey of the RITU project supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, conducted in February 2017 on menstrual hygiene,  66% of surveyed girls did not know what menstruation was when it started. The majority of the girls hold misconceptions mostly based on myths about puberty and menstruation. Umme Sharmin of Wreetu, a platform in breaking the taboos about puberty and menstruation, mentioned that it is hampering their life in every aspect including confidence levels, and negatively impacting education. The survey also conveys that 53% of surveyed girls miss school on an average of 3 days a month during menstruation. “I think it is every adolescent girls’ right to have that accurate information and obviously on time,” said Umme Sharmin.

Referring to menstruation as the stepping stone towards reproductive life, Nazneen Akhter, Public Health & Policy Planning expert said, “Rather than focusing on the health aspect, most women from this social class have to deal with the prejudices associated with it.” 

The number of taboos associated with periods is one of the main reasons for these women to carry on with their unhygienic practices such as cleaning, drying and preservation of cloths in dirty places. 

Health hazards

Chances of vaginal infections are much higher when women use unhygienic materials to deal with periods. Nazneen Akhter emphasizes strongly on eliminating the use of cloths because menstruation creates a very fragile and vulnerable environment within the uterus of females and only proper hygiene can reduce the number of infections in the uterus, vagina and cervix. However, she also goes on to say that no matter how much access to information they have, dealing with periods, given the scarcity of materials in maintaining hygiene is not an easy task for women. 

The nature of work, together with the hours, has a great impact on root-level working women. Shefali, who’s working at a garment factory in Rampura as an operator for nearly four years now, is the only earning member of her family. “I have to produce at least 100 to 150 pieces of products every day. Apart from lunch break, I hardly get time to move from my seat.” The mother of an eleven-year-old has attended various sessions on menstrual hygiene management but still prefers to use a cloth. “I know using a cloth isn’t hygienic, but I have no other option but to use it,” she says. According to Baseline study of RMG workers, 2015, WwW project,  Disposable pads/sanitary napkins were used by about 41percent of RMG workers. 

Nazma, on the other hand, has been working as a housekeeper for more than six years now. The 20 year-old works to look after her daughter and herself. “I face a bunch of problems every month during menstruation. Heavy flow and stomach aches are the challenges that I have to deal with every month. However, I never get any counselling or help from my organisation.”

Women still use rags instead of sanitary napkins. Many women and girls use unsanitary materials, such as old rags, dried leaves, grass, ash, sand, newspaper or socks, because they do not have access to affordable, hygienic and safe products and facilities. In fact, only 33 percent of urban adult women use disposable pads, according to the Bangladesh National Hygiene baseline report 2014. Sanitary napkins available in the market start from Tk70 to Tk250 for a pack of eight pads in Bangladesh.

Wherever she has worked in Bangladesh, be it urban, rural, or remote areas,  Umme Sharmin has found glaring gaps in knowledge about menstrual health. She talks about horrifying revelations from girls in private universities. Many of them have no idea how often sanitary pads need to be refreshed, padding these with toilet tissues to extend the duration. “Considering the economic and educational background of those students they are reluctant to expend 150tk for their menstruation hygiene. 

People with higher economic and educational background contain low levels of period hygiene management out of the stigma, considering it as taboo or simply from reluctance. On the other hand, rural and remote areas don’t have the capacity to access information and lack facilities to maintain it. “There is hardly any comparison regarding knowledge gap regardless of location and social class,” said Umme Sharmin.

The dissemination of information about menstrual health management is being done in various ways - through campaigns or awareness activities. However, the important thing to remember is to do it gradually. “The communication should be decent and sensitive so that they don’t feel shy about menstrual health issues. Also, apart from girls, boys should be aware about menstruation as well,” added Nazneen Akhter.

In the hope of building an informed and impactful society, Wreetu launched its own line of biodegradable sanitary pads in the midst of the pandemic last year. Wreetu’s Facebook page, ensuring safety and health for women and girls are taking care of many people by sponsoring sanitary pads for them. “We are working not only to disseminate information but bring a change. We are focusing more on creating an impact. Because the absence of impact will lead to an end result that will be unsatisfactory,” said Umme Sharmin.

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