KATHMANDU, Sept 25: Nepal has come a long way in recent history in terms of gender equality, but if there is one issue that is still under a silent veil its menstruation. The taboos and lack of information regarding the monthly bleedings is slowly being addressed in schools.
“In Nepal, the main issue is embarrassment and lack of information about how to take care of your menstruation in a healthy and hygienic way,” says Anna Guiney, project officer of Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) under UNICEF.
The silence and embarrassment goes hand in hand with feelings of being dirty and impure and transcends school and life at home. In retelling her experience, 24 year old Shreejana Bajracharya says, “My mom didn’t teach me anything. I’m the oldest daughter in the family and when I first got my period I was scared.”
Despite having older female cousins, Shreejana was in no way informed about what was happening to her body and felt alone in her experience. “My mom didn’t explain it properly, if my younger sisters saw I had blood on my clothes my mother didn’t explain it to them either. I felt like something was wrong with me and I was the only one going through it.”
This story, explains Anna, is not uncommon, “Girls generally don’t have a clue when it happens. People say it’s an older woman’s issues but no, it’s a 10 year old issue – they need to be prepared for when it starts.”
For Shreejana, school provided a sense of normalcy, “Only after going to school did I realize it happened to everyone, I thought that I had done something wrong and it was my fault.” With two of her close friends, she was able to confide in them and together they were able to learn about their bodies.
The other source of support came from her health teacher, “He was very supportive and he would explain things to us. He was the one that encouraged me to promote reproductive health,” and now, Shreejana is the president of Youth Information Forum, Bhaktapur, a local NGO with mostly all female members between 15-25 years of age who spread awareness about reproductive health.
But most girls are not as lucky as Shreejana, she explains the difficulties that girls today are still facing in school, namely, lack of proper facilities. “When I was a student, we never used pads, if we had had them we could have put them in our bags but we felt uncomfortable taking our rags. Even then, we were only allowed to go to the bathroom during recess and lunch and with three toilets for girls and three toilets for boys for 600 students, using the bathroom when you were on your period was impossible. Sometimes, girls would stay home or take a half day.”
Add back aches, cramps, and the uncomfortable fear of staining clothes to the monthly ordeal and it’s no surprise that girls today continue to miss school during their period. According to Anna, a research from 2005 indicates that girls can miss between 10-20 percent of their schooling due to their period.
If girls do attend, they are also subject to trauma, “During exams I couldn’t pay attention so there was extra stress,” shares Shreejana and Anna adds, “There are psychological issues during menstruation if you don’t have the things you need or if you can’t afford it.”
Adding to the stress is inadequate facilities. Anna says maybe about 20% of schools in the far western parts of Nepal have toilets compared to nearly 90% in Kathmandu. “But even if you have toilets, how can you ensure they are clean and hygienic?” she asks and shares that most toilets don’t even have water to clean, soap to wash hands, or means of disposing used products.
The other area in which schools are severely lacking is in providing adequate information. Anna says it’s compulsory for all schools in Nepal to have “Health and Population” in the curriculum, “It’s quite comprehensive in dealing with the biological and theoretical part, the problem is that it doesn’t address the practical part.”
Even if teachers cover it, it’s not done properly says Anna, “We’ve heard girls say it’s not taught at all.
Usually there is male administration and so the teacher may open it up but is embarrassed to teach it themselves due to their lack of training and understanding and therefore girls are missing out on an opportunity to learn.” Shreejana adds that teachers don’t go into details of what happens and why it is happens.
If correct information is not being provided at home or at school, the shadow of silence continues. This, however, is slowing changing and youth have more access to information which in turn changes the way they think.
Anna shares about the girl toilet construction program under the Department of Education which provides better facilities and privacy for girls. She also says that child clubs have been making small efforts, like collecting Rs 5 a month from each student to go towards a fund for sanitary pads girls can use.
And now, schools in and outside Kathmandu have gone as far as asking Youth Information Forum for help. “If teachers aren’t able to explain they approach us,” Shreejana explains of the informative classes that they offer which covers reproductive health, HIV, sex education, drugs, and menstruation.
“The students ask a lot of questions. We use diagrams, we try to make it interesting and interactive, a lot of them are curious,” Shreejan says and adds that boys need to be involved in understanding menstruation. Anna expands, “A lot of boys think it doesn’t have to do with them, but they need to learn in order to be able to appreciate what their sisters, friends, girlfriends and mothers are going through.”
They both agree that having just women involved in these efforts won’t be enough. If anything, Anna says, “This is the most natural process in the world and taboos are changing. Shreejana emphasizes the importance of sanitation and awareness, “Whoever teachers health should take training on reproductive health. They should learn how to make it more fun and interactive – if they’re teaching in a traditional way and they don’t understand the topic properly, then how will they teach others? “
Anna and Shreejana agree – it needs to be talked about.
For more information, attend the menstruation fair, Breaking Menstrual Silence: Kathmandu Mela, happening today from 9am – 12pm at the Lalitpur Nursing Campus, Sanepa.