Menstrual Hygiene Day is observed around the world on May 28. In Pakistan, this day generally passes in silence except for some International Governmental Organizations events. Why? Discussion of menstrual health is a taboo subject in the country, as it is in other regions of the world.
This needs to change.
According to the latest Global Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum (WEF), Pakistan is ranked in 143rd place, the second worst performing country for gender equality. In this context, it is even more important to remove the stigma of menstruation for women so they can strive for equality at educational institutes, workplaces and at home.
Menstruation has been treated as taboo and vilified since ancient times. Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher who shed light on worldly understanding of menstrual blood.
“Contact with (menstrual blood) turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”
Unfortunately, these kinds of ancient beliefs about a woman’s monthly blood have seeped into today’s contemporary world. Pakistani beliefs include: women are not allowed to take a bath, they should not cook or touch sour food, should not drink cold drinks and should not exercise when they are menstruating.
Further, in Pakistan, the common attitudes towards menstrual blood are embroiled in a mixture of disgust, horror and denial. These attitudes convert a normal bodily function into a distressing and hurtful experience for young girls and women.
The menstrual taboo is seen in Pakistani media channels. There are advertisements showing the efficacy of sanitary pads while depicting blood as blue liquid instead of red, as if somehow showing blood in its true colors will reduce the magnitude of the sin of menstruation. Moreover, marketing gimmicks depict menstruation as a distressful and painful time which can only be alleviated through the usage of branded products which are vaguely named so as to leave no clue of the purpose of the product, thus, saving the virtue of all TV watchers.
Most education geared towards menstrual health comes from mothers, but usually only after the first blood has dawned into a daughter’s life. Before that, most households avoid discussing menstrual health, pretending that periods do not exist. Some posh schools have started imparting menstrual health education but they are frowned upon and do not cater to most of the over 42 million girls in Pakistan who are in the age bracket of 10 to 19.
It may not be a surprise given the taboo nature of menstruation that it is usually easier for a girl to buy any non-prescription drug from a medical store than to buy a sanitary napkin. Typically, sanitary napkins are crowded into an unnoticeable corner along with a brown bag that a woman needs to use to discreetly fill with the sanitary pads under the prying eyes of male customers and shop keepers. Further, their cost of approximately Rs 200 means that only 20 percent of girls, usually those in urban areas, have access to them. Consequently, most girls resort to using clothes and rags for their reproductive health.
UNICEF research has shown that menstrual health affects girls’ education in Pakistan. Many girls are not able to continue their education or are pulled out of schools due to reasons like the absence of washrooms and menstrual supplies, the perception of her being of marriageable age, ridicule by boys, and poor performance on their schoolwork.
Although, international organizations like UNICEF are improving water and sanitation hygiene through implementing menstrual health programs, a lot more needs to be done. Efforts need to be made to remove the stigmatization of menstruation, which is inherent to our society’s culture.
Talking about the issue more frequently is one of the first steps in this direction. Increasing awareness among parents and teachers regarding menstrual heath as well as its impact on the future life of a girl is similarly important. And this education should not just be among women. Men need to be equally educated since they have played a major part in making menstruation a taboo subject over the ages.
There also should be menstrual health awareness campaigns dispelling myths about menstruation, and there should be government-sponsored, low-priced menstrual supplies in schools, universities and workplaces to better enable girls and women to fully participate in these institutions. Polio eradication campaigning has been very successful and can be a model to follow in order to generate awareness and to normalize monthly bloods as an acceptable body function.
We need to end the hesitation around menstrual health — starting now.