“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 and not being allowed to eat certain things, 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 – physically and emotionally.
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?
Rajia Khatun 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 the slightest hint of her menstruating. With eight people living in one room, the entire thing was an excruciating experience for her every month. In some parts of Bangladesh, girls are confined to staying indoors upon having their first menstruation.
According to the Bangladesh National Hygiene baseline report in 2014, using old cloth or rugs instead of a sanitary napkin was the predominant menstruation management material for nearly 89% of menstruating girls and women.
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. 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.”
According to her, dissemination of information about menstrual health management can be 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.”
Only 6percent of schools in the country provide education on menstrual hygiene at the moment. In fact, according to statistics, one out of three schoolgirls from South Asia were not even aware of menstruation prior to menarche. According to a cross-sectional survey named ‘Menstrual hygiene management among Bangladeshi adolescent schoolgirls and risk factors affecting school absence’, among schoolgirls who reached menarche, 41% reported missing school, an average of 2.8 missed days per menstrual cycle.
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.
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.
Over 89percent of Bangladesh's 78.4 million 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 33percent 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.
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.”