In Kupwara district, most young girls are deprived of crucial information regarding menstruation and vaginal hygiene
UZMA was 12 when she had her first menstrual period. She was at home and panicked when she found herself bleeding. “I thought I had contracted some serious illness and I was going to die. I immediately called my mother and to my surprise she looked hardly shocked. She told me that I am a grown up girl now and it's time that I stopped playing with boys," she said.
Uzma got very confused by her mother’s behavior and asked her if she should inform her father about it. But her mother yelled at her and told her to never openly discuss this.
It’s been a year since Uzma had her first period but after that stern warning from her mother, she has not disclosed it to anyone, even her own sister.
Uzma’s story is neither strange nor singular. In North Kashmir's Kupwara district, I spoke to many young girls and most of them are deprived of crucial information regarding menstruation and vaginal hygiene.
Sixteen-year-old Sakeena misses two or four days of school every month which has been affecting her attendance. Being a 10th grader at Government High School Diver Lolab, Sakeena feels she has no choice but to miss classes because her school doesn’t have any sanitation facilities.
“I had absolutely no idea about menstruation. I remember seeing my mother discreetly carrying two blue packets covered in a bag, as a child. She later hid those packets inside the locker. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was my brother’s diaper. After a few years, when I had my periods I realized that those packets were sanitary napkins and not diapers٫" said Tabassum, a teenager from Diver Lolab.
“When I menstruated the first time, I was shocked. I felt miserable. I was too embarrassed to talk about it with my mother. I grew up in a house full of women, but we still never discussed it openly,” she added.
Since times immemorial, the discussion around menstruation has been considered a taboo. Menstruation as a topic is not up for discussion, as it is covered in layers of shame and stigma. In other words discussing menstrual issues in public is treated as shameful, disgusting and insulting. We are raised in families where even our mothers are not prepared to have such conversations with us. Many young women grow up with different myths told to them about menstruation being a state of impurity۔
Besides this, some unscientific traditions disallow menstruating women from bathing as they claim that it could lead to problems for the body’s internal organs.
The silence and shame around menstruation has caused severe problems for girls. Most girls from economically underprivileged backgrounds skip or drop out of schools after they begin menstruating. A UNESCO report found that one out of every ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during the monthly periods, while some drop out of school altogether.
While talking to them I found out that low levels of awareness around menstruation and socio-economic barriers is causing a large number of women in Kupwara to refrain from using sanitary napkins. Subsequently, they resort to appalling alternatives such as cloth bands which are proven to be highly unhygienic and dangerous to their health.
“Once I bought a pack of sanitary pads from the shop to try them out. First and foremost, I did not know how to use it. On the other hand I was told that one has to use about 2 to 3 pads every day while experiencing heavy flow. This makes them very expensive to use. I prefer cloth over pads,” said Reshma, a 25-year-old from Dardpora village.
“I honestly don't like using cloth but I belong to a poor family and I cannot afford sanitary napkins every month,” said Jamsheeda, another teenager.
“My mother used to cut up old sheets and put them in a box so that my sisters and I could use them during our periods. But the challenge was to dry those pieces of cloth," Jamsheeda added.
The women in her family placed the washed and formerly stained clothes under other garments to hide them from men's gaze. “It is not ethical to put them in the open,” she stated.
I asked the young girl if she used the same clothes next month during her menses. She replied in the affirmative but before I could pose any more questions she looked at me disdainfully and called me mannerless for asking her such private and weird questions. “Don’t you have any shame?” she exclaimed.
To know more I spoke to an Anganwadi worker in the same area who told me that “many women do not use undergarments as they are used to defecating in the open and sanitary napkins cannot be used without underwears.”
“If you see, a lot of girls, particularly in this area are anemic and have several health issues. They don’t have basic knowledge about their menses and fall prey to various myths concerning the same," she added.
“Since I started working in the social welfare sector, whenever I get a chance, I discuss it on every platform. However, the cultural and collective reluctance comes in my way”, she said. Women still refrained from buying sanitary napkins from a male shopkeeper as per her observations. She further said that women also believed in grossly wrong superstitions such as ones which claim that sanitary pads render females infertile.
"I always wrap the napkins in an opaque bag when a female customer comes to buy it. Here, you don't buy or sell such products openly,” Muneer Ahmad, a store owner said.
It is strange that despite the advancement in science, society still considers menstruation to be something strange and disgusting. It is a biological process like any other natural phenomenon of a human body. There is nothing to be ashamed of and hide.
Even Islam does not say that the possession of the knowledge of menstruation and vaginal health is forbidden. Islam only asks women to keep away from performing religious functions when their periods are ongoing. The woman has been considered able and free to carry out daily tasks as normal.
In the Islamic practice of Fiqh, menstruation is a frequently discussed topic. So, when Islam talks about it openly, why are women made to conceal this part of their lives?
With acceptance and healthy discussions, this topic will stop being a taboo and will be normalised in society.
In conclusion, I would like to say that education and awareness programmes are the key to removing the roots of this taboo. Women should be educated about their own health and possible infections that they must protect their bodies from.
Let us all remember that there is nothing in the natural process of menstruation that a woman needs to be ashamed of. To break all the myths and false trivia around it, we need to educate ourselves first. Periods are not dirty, they are essential for the maintenance of the human species.
(Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals I spoke to)
- The writer can be reached at [email protected]
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