14 LONG FORM
SUNDAY, MAY 31, 2015
Talking menstruation: About time? n Syeda Samira Sadeque
our school uniform is white. And you’re menstruating. There’s a paralysing sense of anxiety that grips you as you realise you’ve stained your uniform, so you ask a friend to hold their bag and/or cover your back as you walk to the washroom. This is a common encounter nearly in every girl’s life in Bangladesh. Either it has happened to you, or your friend, or your cousin -- someone within your social circle. And it’s still happening. Of late, the issue of menstruation has come to public eye like never before, thanks to social media. Recently, Instagram’s removal of photos from Indian activist and writer Rupi Kaur’s photo series on menstruation triggered outrage all over social media. Around the same time, an activist in Germany carried out a campaign, plastering trees and walls in Berlin with sanitary napkins with feminists messages. While these may have raised eyebrows even a few years ago, today these messages are going viral. As the movement to destigmatise menstruation gains traction around the world, there are small ripples of change being created here at home. In Bangladesh, we may be far from being able to post bloodstained photos online, or sanitary napkins in public places, but a discourse has begun.
World Menstrual Hygiene Day at NSU
On Thursday, Bangladeshi organisation Youth’s Voice held a panel discussion on the issue of menstruation at North South University in celebration of World Menstrual Hygiene Day. It included presentations, speeches, and interactive sessions from various professionals. “Our motto was to break the silence,” Tahmid Kamal Chowdhury, founder of Youth’s Voice tells me. “It’s the 21st century -- the world is becoming more developed and people are learning that this shouldn’t be kept under the blankets anymore.” The turnout -- especially that of men, who made up about 50% of the audience -- was a testament to how successfully Youth’s Voice had in fact broken the silence. Tahmid says the idea to address this issue occurred to him during a blanket distribution drive being carried out during the winter. “When we were collecting funds, we received a lot of undergarments to be given away. This got me curious and we did a bit of research,” he says, adding that they learned the undergarments were being given away for use during menstrual cycles of those who could not afford sanitary napkins. “That’s when it struck my mind that we should address this issue,” he says. The event followed a cycle rally, held in the morning, where 300 cyclists biked around the Bashundhara area to raise awareness about World Menstrual Hygiene Day. The event was held in Dhaka, Khulna, and Chittagong. Jasmin Zaman, senior manager of marketing, Square Toiletries Ltd, Christean Cole, deputy director, program office, USAID, Rubaiya Nusrat, WaterAid, and Dr Md
Jakariya, chairman, NSU Department of Environmental Science & Management also spoke at the event. It was partnered by Square Toiletries Ltd, USAID, WaterAid, Leaping Boundaries, and Meenu Apa.
Struggles and stigmas: A vicious cycle
The issue of menstruation goes beyond the mere stigma attached to it. Rather, the stigma and culture of secrecy around menstruation triggers graver problems -- health, social, and mental. During a presentation at NSU, Kimbadanti Sabir discussed the various implications the stigma of menstruation has across cultures. In places such as rural Nepal, menstruating girls aren’t allowed to eat with their families. Many are not allowed to play outside or interact with others. In Muslim countries, during Ramadan, menstruating girls do not eat food out of shame, even though they are constantly in need of energy. “The biggest problem we have, which is directly related to women empowerment, is the idea of shame,” Bobby Hajjaj, ex-mayoral candidate and a former faculty member at NSU, said during a speech at the event. “Anything to do with the menstrual cycle is shameful -- that’s the idea being perpetuated. And if you want to change this country, move ahead, you have to get past this shame,” he said. It is the shame that creates the secrecy, which, in turn, leads to a culture of silence that does not allow open discussions on menstrual health. Thus, issues such as infections, menstrual cramps, and other effects are never discussed, further perpetuating both the struggles and the silence. And that is what
needs to be addressed. “[It’s about teaching] simple things to the youth -- how to dispose of a sanitary napkin, or for those who do not use sanitary napkins, how to clean their rags,” says Sumbal Momen, CEO of Meenu Apa, a sanitary napkin delivery service in Dhaka. “It’s simple knowledge like putting the rags out in the sun for drying -- which sterilises the rags. But instead, many stuff the rags in corners, which eventually grow mold, but are reused,” she says. Such unhygienic practices aren’t the only concerns for girls. There are other issues such as lack of access to proper toilets, sanitary napkins, and medication for menstrual cramps. Often, this discourages girls from going to school while menstruating, which eventually affects their studies and can even put a dent in their self-esteem. “About 40% schoolgoing girls miss school about three days a month,” Kimbadanti said, adding that about one in every four women in Bangladesh have extreme menstrual cramps --a recognised medical condition -but they are ashamed to go to the doctor. Similarly, female RMG employees miss approximately six working days a month -as factories lack proper resources for them: Painkillers, sanitary napkins, proper toilets. “Most women in our country are indoctrinated to believe that the substance leaving their body is filth,” said Kimbadanti, adding that this creates a mental trauma for many. She said: “They themselves think they are filthy, and it affects their self-esteem and goes on to actually act as an anti-measure towards gender equality.”
Avoiding the void?
In his speech, Bobby pointed out there are less than 1/100,000 public toilets for women in Dhaka, which is actually more shameful an issue than menstruation is. Yet, our society remains immersed in a culture of stigmatising a natural process. And that is where we require change. He added, aptly: “A natural process cannot be shameful. A part of someone’s life cannot be shameful.” When I shared the story of the German activist’s campaign with sanitary napkins, a friend commented that mainstream media did not pick up the story because it’s “not important.” And that is where the void lies -- for the men of our society, menstruation is a far-off thing. It is distant. Justifiably so, because it is not something they have experienced first hand. They understand little about the discomfort of wearing a sanitary napkin for hours or the cramps that sear through your body (at least) once every month. However, in this world where 50% of the population experiences this, it is of utmost importance that men and women alike address the issue of menstrual health and hygiene. And instead of avoiding this void, we need to address it. Unless we collectively do so, the void will remain. And through that void, through that crack, will slip through hundreds of unheard stories of stigmas and taboos that ostracise women from their communities and, in turn, hamper their contribution to the society. l Syeda Samira Sadeque is a journalist at Dhaka Tribune. You can follow her on twitter @Samideque.