Menstruation and social stigma in Bangladesh
"When I was 15, I had sent my younger brother to the nearby pharmacy to get me a packet of sanitary napkins. He came back without having it wrapped in its usual brown packaging, and I lashed out at him out of sheer embarrassment. Now that I am approaching my twenties and have a better understanding of all this, I feel guilty," says Rehnuma Choudhury*, a freshman in a well-reputed public university. Like every other girl in Bangladesh, Rehnuma was also taught to be ashamed of her periods from a very young age. She was only nine when she got her first period, and ever since then, she was taught the shrewd art of discreet hygiene maintenance whilst menstruating. "My mother insisted that I pretend to fast in front of my father, grandfather, and brother. She would sneak in food for me, and would turn red if I even uttered the word."
Rehnuma has gradually learned to tackle the microaggressions associated with menstruation at her home. She has since talked to her mother at length about this natural process, one that is very intrinsically linked with a woman's physical anatomy, livelihood, and reproductive health. Her mother's hesitant acceptance has helped her whole family to begin to understand why menstruation is not a matter of shame. However, Rehnuma believes that there is a long way to go.
The stigma that biologically assigned females face due to menstruation is ubiquitous, especially in Bangladeshi society. "Growing up, I never found proper sanitary napkins in my school. Our campus was large, thus, if someone suddenly got their period in school, they would either have to walk to and from the medical room that was not nearby, or wait until their friend could bring them one from there," says Nadia Karim*, a student of one of the most reputable institutes in Bangladesh.
As children, not only are women taught to be secretive about their periods by their mothers, but teachers play a major role, too. From a religion teacher chastising his female student in front of everyone for having quietly told her friend that "Women can't always pray," to a female biology teacher making sure that no chapter with the slightest hint of menstruation is taught by male teachers in a classroom of female students, teachers play an instrumental role regarding how menstrual health is taught and perceived in a certain school in Dhanmondi. Such problems, unfortunately, are exacerbated with parents' problematic attitudes, too.
Sharika Kabir, majoring in computer science and engineering in BRAC University, recalls a particular incident at school that had an adverse effect on her mental health. "I got my first period in class six and did not make much of it. However, a certain classmate and her mother shamed me relentlessly for having gotten my period at the age of 11. They would tell other parents that I had gotten my period so early because my physique was similar to my mother's, alluding to our tall stature and wider waists as the reason."
This particular incident is not isolated. It is not rare for periods to be used as a weapon against young girls to cause them shame or make accusations against them, despite the average age for girls in Bangladesh to start menstruating being 12. This happens due to the profuse spread of misinformation among people because of the taboo surrounding menstruation. According to a 2019 WASH Poverty Diagnostic study, only 36 percent of girls had prior knowledge regarding menstruation when they got their first period. It is no surprise, given only 6 percent of the schools in the country provide education on menstruation and menstrual hygiene. 30 percent of the students miss classes three to four days a month, many even dropping out when things get worse due to unattended vaginal infections. Over one-third of these girls believe that challenges associated with their periods hamper their educational progress. Multiple studies have shown that poor school attendance and multifarious issues related to menstrual health can significantly lower these girls' self-esteem.
Due to the high price of sanitary napkins, 77 percent of Bangladeshi women have no proper access to appropriate menstrual materials, according to a 2018 study by the World Bank. Most women keep using unhygienic rags and old clothes that are merely washed before reuse. This largely increases the risk of urinary tract infection (UTI) and bacterial vaginosis. However, none of this is much talked about and, thus, women impacted by such abject period poverty have no feasible solution to their menstrual management problems. Public toilets in Bangladesh fail to provide aid in such times as well, which makes it difficult for female labourers to work during menstruation. Travelling during periods sounds nightmarish to women. "I usually take pills to delay my period before going on a trip, especially if the dates align," notes Farhana Haque, a homemaker and mother of two.
Unfortunately, such challenges extend to the workplace as well. Oftentimes, offices do not have proper washroom facilities, including accessible toilets, handwashing stations, and trash receptacles. This leads to female employees eating and drinking less to avoid having to use the washroom. Sanitary pads are meant to be changed every three to four hours, thus, a woman working full-time during her period might be causing serious problems to her menstrual health.
Nuzhat Hayat Khan, an A-level student, speaks about the stigma attached to menstruation. "I, fortunately, did not face anything in particular, but the whole concept has always been stigmatised. I learnt about menstruation only from my mother and a few friends. It was never taught in school or any other educational institution. Not to mention, nobody even told me why I would go through this cycle and what causes it. I had to learn all about it by myself."
It is essential that we, as a society, talk openly about what menstruation is: the monthly discharge of blood and uterine lining that girls and women experience. Open discussions, education on menstrual health and hygiene management, accessibility to proper washroom facilities, and removal of taxation on and increasing the availability of proper sanitary products everywhere are prerequisites in our journey toward a society that does not unnecessarily stigmatise menstruation. Proper policy implementation is also necessary to address and solve the infrastructural gaps that are profoundly hampering women's reproductive health in Bangladesh.
*Not their real names