– BY SUMIT BANIK –
The menarche is an important moment. Even if you’ve got a supporting family, hygienic toilets, and are fully stocked up with pads, hot water bottles and chocolate, getting your first period can be a bit scary. But for girls in rural Bangladesh, an area which lacks menstrual education as well as modern amenities, it’s likely to be even more daunting.
‘Embarrassed to openly wash these bloodstained cloths, she folds them into larger clothes’
Also the 12-year-old Jharna Tanchangya (pseudonym) was unprepared for her menarche. During a math exam, she suddenly felt a severe pain in her abdomen. At home, a remote village in the Bandarban Hill District, she noticed blood on her legs as well as blood stains on her uniform. Jharna has received no prior information about menstruation, doesn’t know anything about menstrual management, and has no-one to talk to apart from her older sisters who told her to change her clothes. Jharna decided to use old cloths to deal with her monthly bleeding. Embarrassed to openly wash these bloodstained cloths, she folded them into larger clothes.
It isn’t until she participates in a menstrual health awareness meeting organized by a local NGO, that Jharna learns about proper menstrual management. She’s told that cloths used during menstruation should be dried in the hot sun to kill off germs. The prevailing social custom in the Bangladesh hill districts is that girls are forbidden to the temple or perform worship during menstruation. The religious leader is Jharna’s village doesn’t prohibit this though. Other women do tell her that it’s forbidden to eat tamarind during menstruation as it would increase the bleeding.
‘Many girls’ lives have been ruined because of unhealthy menstrual management’
There are thousands of girls like Jharna in Bandarban Hill District and other remote areas of Bangladesh. If they’re lucky, their menarche experience will be similar to Jharna’s. However, there are also, mostly unheard, stories of first menstruation that are much more tragic. Many girls’ lives have been ruined just because of unhealthy menstrual management.
Since 2019, Simavi Netherlands and Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS) in collaboration with ten local development organizations in Chittagong Hill Tracts have been trying to change this with financial support of the EU. Already 12,000 unprivileged women and adolescent girls of the Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachhari hill districts in Bangladesh have been involved in the `Our Lives, Our Health, Our Futures’ Programme. This initiative supports young women to manage their menstruation with dignity. It also empowers them to fulfill their sexual and reproductive health and rights without violation, coercion or discrimination.
‘Only 10% of teenage girls use hygienic sanitary pads’
According to a Bangladesh National Hygiene Baseline Survey from 2014, only 6% of girls have received any education related to menstrual hygiene at school. About 36% heard about menstrual hygiene management (MHM) before their first period. As a result, many girls have to go through embarrassing situations. It’s often the responsibility of the family, especially the mothers, to inform their teenage daughters. It’s necessary to create a supportive environment in the educational institutions to enable conversation about menstruation.
Another problem is that a large portion of women and girls use unclean cloths. Only 10% of adolescents and 25% of older women use sanitary napkins or hygienic sanitary pads during their menstruation. If these aren’t changed often enough, there still is a risk of infection and diseases. About 8% of teenage girls use old, dirty cloths. In rural Bangladesh there’s still a lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene. The mentality of openly discussing this issue with family members hasn’t yet been formed in our society.
‘Due to the coronavirus, it’s impossible to ensure the availability of necessary materials’
Unhealthy menstrual health care, unavailability of materials and poor sanitation infrastructure are hampering the educational opportunities, health and social status of women and girls around the world. As a result, millions of women and girls are being prevented from reaching their full potential. Every year, May 28 is celebrated globally as Menstrual Hygiene Day to break the silence and raise awareness and change the negative social norms surrounding menstruation.
The theme of 2020 is ‘Pandemics do not stop menstruation: it’s time for action’. Also here in Bangladesh, Covid-19 has disrupted the society. Teenagers can’t go to school or play outside with friends. Due to the corona virus, the social and economic situation is stagnant, which means people are deprived of getting proper health care. It’s not possible to ensure the easy availability of necessary materials and proper hygiene. Above all, proper menstrual management is lacking, which is disrupting the overall life of women.
We hope to end the shame and embarrassment that still surround menstruation in Bangladesh. However, this is impossible without a conscious and sensitive approach and will be very difficult without government initiative, help and support. We hope that together the government, the private sector and the media will help us change this long standing stalemate so the next generation of girls will have a different menarche experience.
About the author: Sumit Banik is a public health activist with experience in different health studies as a research worker in Bangladesh. He has completed his post-graduation degree on public health. Sumit is passionate about working for marginalized and unprivileged community people, developing their health outcome through a sustainable approach. Currently he’s working with Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha (BNPS) as Master Trainer in ‘Our Lives, Our Health, Our Futures’ Programme at Bandarban Hill District in Bangladesh.
Images and portrait: Sumit Banik.
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