THE RED TENT
Going to school was tough at that time due to the cold temperatures. Snowy in the winter season, there were hardly very hot temperatures even in the summer. This mountain area called Dolakha is where I was born. I developed my first crush on one of the mountains called Mt. Gaurishankar on a beautiful morning when the sunshine kissed the mountain and it glowed like heaven as I had heard in legendary stories about it. Named after the Gauri-goddess and Shankar-god from the Hindu religion, climbing this mountain is prohibited because of religious beliefs and respect. But every time I went close to the mountain or saw its heavenly view, I imagined hugging it.
Imaginations and dreams were part of my life when I was growing up. However, as I got older, I noticed changes occurring in my body and this was a very weird experience for me. It was shameful for me to ask my parents about these physical changes and even my mom never told me exactly what would happen in my body as I matured. Back then, our culture didn’t allow us to talk freely about physical bodily changes, or reproductive or sexual health; even now, the custom remains in my country.
Due to cold my cheeks were redder than usual on this particular day; I was 12 at the time. Feeling some strange pain in my belly, I also felt like my underwear smelled. I still remember this day! I was wearing yellow underwear and later at home, I observed a red color on them. At first, I thought it was a stain I may have gotten while playing. Then I started thinking bad thoughts—maybe I had stomach cancer or an intestinal wound and maybe it would cause death. I was trembling with fear seeing strange things in my life. I couldn’t be sure that it was menstruation because our woman elders used to say, “Nachhhunu bhayapachhi nidharma tika lagchha.” This means we get a mark on our forehead when we have our first menstruation. I didn’t see any mark on my forehead. To this day, I am not sure why they say it like that. I was too afraid to tell my mom so I wore three trousers and went to school. The whole day I was nervous thinking of the heavy bleeding. I didn’t know anything about menstruation, except that my mom would not touch anything for five days each month.
The Nepali word for menstruation is nachhunu which means untouchable. It means while we are menstruating, we are considered untouchable or impure for five days and everything we touch becomes impure. When we have our first menstruation, we are not allowed to touch any males (including our father and brothers) and are not allowed to enter the kitchen or prayer rooms for 22 days. We also have to use separate utensils. Further, looking in the mirror during menstruation is considered bad luck. Our culture has the superstitious belief that menstruation is the punishment of sins from our previous lives.
So when our house maid noticed the blood on my dress after I came home from school, she immediately told my mom. They packed some of my dresses and told my dad to go out of house so that I couldn’t see him. I went with our house maid to her home which was approximately 1 ½ hours away. While there, I was given a dark room with no sunlight and given one plate and glass to use for eating. People said to me, “timi aba thuli bhayau” which means now I am grown up. Ohh! Now, grown up means I had to be careful from then on not to play with male friends, not to stay out too long, not to go out often or at all. I used to cry when I was alone for being grown up—all coming from this one simple, natural physical change in my body. I hated that blood which made this sudden change.
At the time, I had to use rags because I didn’t even know there were things like sanitary pads. Using rags was unhygienic and I was also unaware of how to wash them carefully. Days were so hard; all of the restrictions were the worst part. On “those days,” I was kept away from school and feared what questions my friends and teachers would ask. I saw many of my friends miss school during their menstrual periods; I also saw some friends get married after they started menstruating because they were now considered “grown up” in my culture.
I was supposed to stay away from my home for 12 days but luckily my mom allowed me to come back on the seventh day. That day, I was given new cloths and new things. I entered our home after they sprinkled gold water (they put gold in water, as it is believed to be pure). I was told that I shouldn’t touch my dad for 22 days. This was extremely challenging because I was always “Daddy’s Little Girl” and couldn’t imagine not talking to or hugging my dad. I cried a lot and hated being grown up. Many people stared at me and scolded me, telling me it was a sin. This depressed me for a long time after that.
DISTRICT REPORT; According to the Monthly Monitoring and Annual Performance Review Worksheet for 2008 through 2009/10 in Dolakha, the estimated target population for health service use was 224,982; the actual users were 235,674, including immigrated people. Female health service takers are increasing by 2-4% per day which can be considered as the awareness of more health problems. Out of which, in the year 2009-10, there was an average 96 cases of menstruation disorder (in married and unmarried women) per month in the district primary health center of Dolakha.
There is minimal promotional health service through advertisement in TV, Radio, and Newspapers. It includes some information on major diseases but it doesn’t include any awareness on menstruation hygiene. Hygienic practices during menstruation are of considerable importance as it has health impacts in terms of increased exposure to various infections. Due to lack of awareness, hygiene is neglected by girls, especially in the rural areas. The renowned INGO Water Aid is one of the major organizations working on awareness of sanitation including menstruation hygiene.
SURVEY; According to a 2009 survey by Water Aid, the key reasons girls were absent while menstruating was a lack of privacy, unavailability of sanitary disposal facilities and water shortages. They are also seen to avoid going to toilets during menstruation as most schools do not have separate latrines for girls and most of them have missed school during menstruation. According to Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES), only 41% of schools in Nepal have latrine facilities with only 26% of schools having separate latrine for girls. To avoid humiliation, especially teasing by school boys, the girls would rather stay at home. This is one of the reasons why they lose interest in going to school and have poor performance results in school. One of the studies has indicated that girls are also likely to get depressed during their first menstruation.
The primary health education is included from class 1 to class 10 in the new study course. There is a subject called “Science, Environment and Health” in class 1-5 and after that there is subject called “Population, Health and Environment.” (This course is not enough for the complete knowledge on basic reproductive health. Though there are some chapters about the reproductive health, due to the new course and untrained teachers it has been ineffective. Also, the girls are too shy to ask about this and teachers themselves do not teach about it clearly due to our cultural barriers. And gender biases still exist in some of the schools in rural areas.
According to Govinda Raj Sedhai, secretary of District Education Office in Dolakha, the education ministry is bringing a new literacy program to adults. These adult/elders literacy classes will include three days of health education which may help woman to know about their menstruation and reproductive health, too.
NATIONAL HEALTH POLICY—the NHP was adopted in 1991 to bring about improvements in health conditions of the people of Nepal through extending access and availability of the primary health care system. The primary objective of NHP is to extend the primary health care system to the rural population so that they benefit from modern facilities and the services provided by trained health care providers. Under the government, there are three kinds of health services: 1) preventive 2) promotional and 3) curative health services. Menstruation hygiene falls under the category of preventive and promotional health.
GLOBAL VIEW; in total, women spend around six to seven years of their lives menstruating. A key priority for women and girls is to have the necessary knowledge, facilities and cultural environment to manage menstruation hygienically and with dignity. Yet, the importance of menstrual hygiene management is mostly neglected by development practitioners within the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, and other related sectors such as reproductive health.In many countries like Nepal, women are considered to be “impure” during their menstrual cycle. They are prohibited to take part in social life and are treated as “untouchable” during their menstrual cycle. But the truth is menstruation is a natural phenomenon that should be celebrated and an important part of the feminine journey. We talk about girls’ education and their rights to education. And when we talk about girls’ education, we cannot focus only on scholarships or building toilets. We need an integrative approach that involves gender sensitivity among teachers and programs educating mothers on the impact menstruation has on young girls.
There are many cultures in Nepal. Some of them treat menstruation in a good way and some of them treat it as if it is a big curse(more in the eastern part). The majority of girls learn about menstruation from their mothers, sisters and girl friends but what happens when they don’t know about menstruation hygiene? And what happens when they have knowledge, but they lack proper facilities for their hygiene? As a result, some of them suffer from depression and some get various infections. Many girls prefer to stay home during this time, which leads to their poor school performance.
My parents were unaware of this and I am sure they didn’t do it intentionally. But I had to aware them about it so my younger sisters didn’t pass through the same condition. And I am spreading awareness on the same through rotaract. I am proud to be in Rotaract(sponsored by rotary club of Charumati) and one of our recent projects was a Girls Toilet Project for which I am a coordinator, funded by the Matilda Bay-Australia Rotary Club. We have completed the project and I am currently working voluntarily in that school to raise awareness on menstruation hygiene, as well as other basic teenage problems. This is the first step of a big mission of mine! I am still learning and seeking new ways and ideas to include both genders. And I am happy that young girls don’t have to suffer in the same way I did in my early days of menstruation.
It depends upon how different cultures practice menstrual hygiene. But it is a very important part of health education like other major health issues without which woman empowerment is incomplete. It’s only possible to increase menstruation hygiene when not only health officers but teachers and parents play a vital role in transmitting a message of proper menstrual hygiene. This wouldn’t only save girls from many health hazards but would break the barrier to their regular school attendance. And we can play a most significant role through communicating with each other to create safe menstrual hygiene in our families and in our communities. This is where the woman empowerment begins…
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard from corners of the world.