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Social taboos damage the health of girls and women

Myths about menstruation mean that women are marginalised
Myths about menstruation mean that women are marginalised

All over the world girls and young women experience their menstrual cycle. It's a process as natural as the ocean flowing, as regular as the full moon. But in many countries the subject is enshrouded with shame and harsh impracticalities. Our guest blogger, Neyonta, asks when the tides will change for these innumerable young women.

Large numbers of girls in many less economically developed countries drop out of school when they begin menstruating. This includes over 23% of girls in India and up to 21% in Sierra Leone

As most girls are in secondary education when they begin menstruating, they are restricted in the most important stage of general education. Not only does this have a direct consequence on the girls’ learning, but in the long-term may be a factor of less educated or high-earning women in the family and community. 

Shocking sanitary methods

In terms of health and hygiene, the quantities of girls and women who find it difficult to access safe and comfortable methods of blood absorption is shocking. 

Women Dhaka Bangladesh

Over 80% of menstruating girls and women in Bangladesh and 77% in India use an old cloth which is often reused. 88% of women in India sometimes resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and husk sand to aid absorption. Girls and women who use unhygienic methods are 70% more likely to contract reproductive tract infections, compared to women who use sanitary towels. 

Profound economic effect

Lack of availability of sanitary towels has a profound economic effect on women in Bangladesh. The largest industry in Bangladeshi are garment factories, where 80% of the work force is women. One study found that the majority of these women were using rags from the factory floor as menstrual cloths. Infections are so common in the women who work in the factories that they cause 73% of women miss work unpaid for an average of six days per month.

There are two major causes of why girls and women in countries such as India and Bangladesh face harsh problems while menstruating. One is, predictably, the high poverty rates and the direct consequences associated with this. This includes poor infrastructure meaning lack of specialisation of domestic and public toilets for women. 

In Delhi, there are an estimated 132 public toilets for women, only 8% the number of the 1,534 for men. The prevalence of latrines in countries such as Bangladesh, where this is cheaper than building raised toilets, presents a difficult situation for girls. They often feel neither comfortable nor dignified to use latrines, and when they are menstruating their problems are amplified. Also many low-earning women compromise on buying herself sanitary towels to buy food to provide for her family.

As well as high poverty rates, the other major factor of the problem is that menstruation is a stubborn social taboo in many countries. 

Chain of social taboos

The problems related to a lack of money and proper infrastructure fail girls’ and women’s needs in a physical sense. The taboos about menstruation present in many societies impact on girls’ and women’s emotional state, mentality and lifestyle. 

Sadly such myths have led to 48% of girls in Iran, 10% in India, and 7% in Afghanistan believing that menstruation is a disease. For example the removal of bad blood from the body, rather than a natural and healthy part of adolescence or young adulthood. 

Napattinam Woman FSP

In some parts of India, perceptions of Hinduism centre on notions of purity and pollution. Bodily excretions are believed to be polluting, as are the bodies when producing them. It is believed that if a girl or women touches a cow while she is on her period, that the cow will become infertile – leading girls to associate their own bodies with curse and impurity. 

In rural Kenya women on their periods are not even considered fit to into a goats den or walk near livestock, and are not allowed to eat their meat or drink their milk. 

Shame and embarrassment

A WaterAid study showed that 89% of women in Nepal abide by form of social restrictions during menstruation. This is because menstruation is seen as a subject of shame and embarrassment. Girls and women are prevented from activities such as preparing food, travelling, and attending school. 

In rural Nigeria, men and women sometimes maintain separate quarters when a woman is on her cycle. For fear that they are vulnerable to witchcraft attacks, some women worry about how to dispose of their pads or old cloths, leading them to not getting washed. Similarly in Burkina Faso, sanitary protection materials are carefully hidden for fear that other women may use them in black magic to cause infertility. 

In Bangladesh women are prevented from carrying out their faith as praying and reading the Koran when they are on their period is looked upon with shame. They are also not allowed to prepare food or work on rice fields, or even to share a bed with their partner. 

In Afghanistan menstruating girls and women are also prevented from sleeping next to other family members. In Bolivia, because girls view menstrual blood as an extension of themselves, this influences the way in which they dispose of their sanitary materials. Simply burying used menstrual pads, which is unhygienic, is viewed as acceptable whilst incineration is not. 

How is the situation improving?

Many organisations have been working towards adequate female sanitation facilities, and better awareness and understanding of menstruation. BRAC’s Sanitary Napkin and Delivery Kits Production Centre supplies affordable, biodegradable napkins. These help to meet the public health needs of schoolgirls and women in rural areas. 

Rendille women at Hula Hula village near Marsabit, EP KenyaGoonj, an Indian NGO, founded the ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ initiative that works in a socially and environmentally sustainable way. Cloth is used from urban households to make affordable, reusable and biodegradable sanitary napkins. The manufacturing process is manual and provides employment to women in slums, helping to reduce their poverty. The NGO Phulki carries out similar work in Dhaka. One of its priorities is building awareness of positive hygiene practices during menstruation to avoid infection.

Schools attend to girls' needs

Increasingly, some schools have also begun to tackle the issue of their female students dropping out when on their periods. An example is Batajore B. M. High School in the Bangladesh. Cleanliness and proper use and maintenance of the toilets are monitored by the school WASH committee and student brigade. Weekly hygiene lessons have been made compulsory at the school. 

Additionally the school offers sanitary napkins for sale to the students at a cost much cheaper than the average. The school is one of the thousands in Bangladesh that has built separate toilet facilities for girls over the last few years. 

Stuborn social taboos

Many organisations and initiatives help to reduce the problem through hygiene education, cheaper sanitary towels, and female public toilets. However, perhaps the stubborn social myths around menstruation, and cause so much distress to girls and women, are much tougher to get rid of.

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