Photo: Ananya Rubayat
My imbrued frock disclosed to my displeasure- my entrance into puberty. Two days prior to my twelfth birthday, it ensued- the 'biological inevitable.' The flowing down of thick red fluid did not place me into perplexity, but it made the next seven days highly uncomfortable. I was determined to conceal the shame it bore, hence to the best of my abilities I tried to bury the occasion from my mother. Inevitably, I failed! Despite my best attempt to conceal, the soiled bed-sheet, the imbrued frock provided testimonies. The betrayal aggrieved me!
Conventional social practice dictates that the monthly cycle be treated with utmost confidentiality, since it is perceived that the 'discharge' makes a woman impure and an object of ridicule. I observed the prevailing practice until I read Gloria Steinem's “If men could menstruate.” It made me question the wisdom of veiling the monthly cycles into a non-existent entity. Gloria writes, 'magically, if men began menstruating….menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much…. Boys would mark the onset of menses [with parties ].. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free…[Menstruation would serve as the] proof that only men can serve in the Army, (“you have to give blood to take blood”), … or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”).”
Justifications reversed! Menstruation is nicknamed 'the curse,' considered as a shame that limits women's abilities. Universal degradation of women continues due to the functionality that prepares the womb for the continued existence of the human species. In his book Natural History, Pliny the Elder writes, “menstruating woman spoils harvests, devastates gardens, kills seeds, makes fruit fall, kills bees; if she touches the wine, it turns to vinegar; milk sours….” Such views predominated in the West until the early twentieth century, and are rampant in some parts of the world even today. In India menstruating women are prevented from cooking, as it is believed that it poisons the food and in Japan due to the monthly cycle women are prevented from becoming sushi chefs.
Predominant among the Hindu communities in western Nepal and in certain parts of India is the practice of keeping menstrual women/girls in seclusion in small 'menstrual sheds.' The sheds lack access to basic amenities forcing women and girls on their cycles to reside in unhygienic conditions making the genitalia vulnerable to infections. Residing in these menstrual sheds, women are exposed to life threatening dangers- rape, wild animals, and snake bites. In the rural areas of Kenya, many women use twigs, leaves, chicken feathers, which make the monthly cycle a difficult time for girls to attend schools. Expressing her menstrual plight, a Kenyan girl in the short documentary film Period of Shame said, “To avoid soiling the bed, I collect soil, pour it on the floor and sit on it naked overnight…” In many parts of the world today menstrual hygiene products are considered a privilege even though Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights considers it as a basic human right.
Despite Bangladesh's progress in women empowerment, much needs to be done in the area of menstrual hygiene. Menstruation in the local Bengali language is termed sharir kharap that translates as 'sickness.' The usage of the term sharir kharap stigmatises menstruation, providing justification for the shunning of public discussions on periods. In our local vocabulary the words mashik, period, menses have evolved into dirty words, stigmatising women's sexual and reproductive health.
Few months ago, The Daily Star, published an incident of a grade nine female school student who died after fainting in the classroom. During autopsy, two baby snakes were found in her uterus. She used a damp old cloth as her menstrual rag, which caused the unfortunate incident. Menstrual cloth that does not get washed with soap and gets dried in the open air becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. According to “Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey 2014,” 86 per cent of adolescent students use old cloth during menstruation, among which only 12 percent of the students wash it properly with soap, and dry it under the sun. The report also highlights that 40 per cent of the female students in Bangladesh skip schools during menstruation as a result of poor toilet infrastructure. During the monthly cycles even the female teachers are forced to take leave due to inadequate toilet facilities.
Gender equity is one of the priority areas of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Nonetheless, progress in this aspect would be unachievable without access to better menstrual hygiene, since improper access to 'adequate facilities' restrict women's mobility during menstruation. Reusable sanitary napkins or menstrual cups need to be provided for free to the underprivileged female students enrolled in schools and colleges to reduce the prevalence of high dropout rates. Furthermore, separate toilet facilities with improved latrines and hand-washing stations need to be ensured in the remote areas. To facilitate the implementation of Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), relevant ministries must strengthen inter-ministerial coordination, and act in collaboration with donor organizations and NGOs working at the grass roots level. It is also essential that the importance of menstruation and menstrual hygiene be embedded in the national curricula to break the prevailing stigma. In addition, to progress gender equity MHM must be incorporated in the 7th Five-year plan. In order to recognise bad menstrual hygiene as a barrier to female empowerment, Gender Budget in the upcoming fiscal years should make specific budget allocation for MHM to facilitate its implementation.
The author is Former Research Associate of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) and currently works in a health sector development programme.