When I got my first period, I had no idea how to use cotton pads, and sanitary napkins were not readily available. My mother taught me how to use homemade ones, but I worried it would fall off during physical activity.
Growing up, I dealt with menstrual pain and cramps and asked my girlfriends to escort me to the toilet and monitor my skirt for stains. Gradually, I learned to practice menstrual health and hygiene. Thankfully, I had a very supportive family who did not practice period restrictions.
For a lot of Nepali women, however, periods are a taboo and people hesitate to talk about it. Menstrual restrictions are still widespread, with girls and women not allowed to go to the kitchen, enter temples, participate in rituals, or perform household activities.
Parts of western Nepal still practice chhaupadi where menstruating girls and women are banished to cowsheds during their monthly cycle, despite the practice being outlawed. The often suffer infections, animal attacks, and suffocation due to smoke inhalation and even sexual abuse in the huts.
Menstruation is a natural process and yet traditional beliefs often outweigh the science. For example, women still tend to buy pads wrapped in newspaper because of the shame associated with it.
Women and girls are not empowered enough to talk about it. Knowledge and awareness about menstruation, health and hygiene, and the opportunity for open discussion between men and women, parents and children, teachers and students are urgently needed.
“I wear sanitary pads, and I wear them the whole day during my school. I don’t like changing it in school as there is no place to dispose of it,” a 15-year-old girl studying in Grade 8 in Indrawati Municipality in Sindhupalchok told me.
Another girl aged 14 in the same class said, “My school provides us free sanitary napkins, but I hesitate as I have to go to the teachers’ room full of male teachers. So I wait for the lady teacher to be alone, it is difficult if she is in the class or meeting or absent. Therefore, I prefer not to get any pads from school.”
Said another, a 13-year-old: “My mother said that I should not go to the temple or touch the statues of god during my period, because if I do, God will punish me, and I will fail my exam. I think it is bad blood and we are impure during this period.”
Since 2018-19, we have been working on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and focusing on Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHM) by imparting knowledge and information to adolescents and by engaging parents and teachers.
We are now installing pad vending machines in Indrawati Municipality, but there are larger societal barriers that we need to address. Students need to be engaged in orientations to empower them to understand their bodies, their rights and dignity to live as respectful human beings in society as well as in a dialogue with their parents and teachers.
Everyday problems such as the availability of well-functioning toilets, water, sanitary products, napkin disposable pits or bins in the school to bring about sustainable positive change and consciousness about menstrual health and hygiene are also needed.
“The orientation on menstruation was liberating. I had always tried to hide it, but now that the boys have also understood the matter there is no point hiding it,” shared a 12-year-old girl.
A tenth grader told us, “Now I can ask my brother or father to buy me a pad if necessary and talk with teachers about proper toilets and other facilities.”
“Since the teachers taught us that menstruating is a natural process and not something to be ashamed of, I am always questioning my mother about restrictions. My mother asked me to do it for the sake of my grandmother, so I followed it for her,” said the 10th grader.
We now need to advocate for better menstrual health and hygiene management for all adolescent girls. It is possible for everyone to understand that menstruation is natural and something to cherish. It is crucial that we initiate a discourse to address hindrances, and impart knowledge, skill and information.
Saki Thapa is Advocacy, Networking and Resource Mobilisation Manager, and Program Manager SRHR at Birat Nepal Medical Trust.