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World Menstrual Hygiene Day: Menstruation taboos pose major health risks for Bangladeshi women

  • Published at 12:53 am May 28th, 2018
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According to a 2014 National Hygiene Baseline Survey, 89% of the surveyed girls who used cloth instead of sanitary pads, stored their menstrual cloth in a hidden place for repeated use without washing them in a hygienic manner Bigstock

Physicians say it may cause infertility in women

Menstruation taboos stemming from a general lack of menstrual hygiene awareness, pose major health risks to Bangladeshi girls and women, adding to the already abundant discriminatory practices towards them.

According to a research conducted by RITU, a menstrual hygiene awareness project co-created by RedOrange Media, Simavi, and The Netherlands Organization (TNO), taboos surrounding menstruation include food, mobility, and religious restrictions.

Consultant Gynaecologist Dr Nowsheen Sharmin Purabi explained that these restrictions make it very difficult for women, especially young girls, to manage their periods in a hygienic manner, leading to health risks such as fungal infections and infection of the reproductive and urinary tracts. 

“Chronic infections lower the overall quality of a girl’s life and may even lead to infertility in the future,” she added.

Taboos surrounding menstrual blood

According to the National Hygiene Baseline Survey carried out in 2014, 89% of the surveyed girls who used cloth instead of sanitary pads, stored their menstrual cloth in a hidden place for repeated use without washing them in a hygienic manner.

Despite being aware of the need to properly wash the cloth and dry it in sunlight, girls opt to dry them indoors because of the taboo surrounding menstrual blood. Girls are specifically taught to keep menstruation a secret from the male members of their family.

Marzia Prova of Donate a Pad for Hygiene Bangladesh says that there exists a far-fetched myth which suggests that men can go blind if they see menstrual blood.

The study by RITU also found that girls have to wake up early in the morning before other family members to wash their menstrual cloths, and only use one bucket of water for it, so they can get it done quickly, before being discovered by somebody.

Since the cloth is neither washed nor dried properly, infections are unavoidable. 

Dietary Restrictions

The most common foods that women are forbidden from having during their periods are milk, eggs, fruits, and fish. 

According to Dr Purabi, these dietary restrictions often result in malnutrition among women.

Another food-related taboo found by RITU’s research was that women are usually expected to take baths before cooking. A more severe version of this taboo is for men to cook, instead of letting menstruating women into the kitchen, citing “impurity” as the main reason.

Social taboos

It is also considered a taboo for females to travel long distances when they are menstruating. 

Exaggerated versions of this taboo include restrictions from going near boys, cows (out of a fear that the cows will die), as well as taking a bath in a pond or lake (which supposedly kills all the fish in the water).

At least 40% of school girls surveyed in the National Hygiene Baseline Survey reported missing school during menstruation.

“The beginning of menstruation is followed by restrictions regarding physical activities such as sports and dance, as well as hanging out with friends of the opposite sex,” said Farzin Fardu, deputy director of operations of Dhaka District for the Youth’s Voice Foundation, an organization dedicated to combating menstruation taboos in Bangladesh.

“Changes in attire are also inevitable,” she added. “T-shirts and shorts must be changed to the salwar kameez, and more new rules come flooding in as if the physical and psychological changes are not disruptive enough.” 

Breaking taboos to ensure menstrual hygiene

In a country where women are repeatedly subjected to discrimination, menstruation taboos are further marginalizing them. They are also being deprived of their right to healthcare. 

However, efforts are underway to deal with these taboos and spread awareness to ensure proper menstrual hygiene management.

RedOrange Media and Communications, with their RITU project, is using mass and social media campaigns, and school-based awareness campaigns to educate people on menstrual hygiene issues.

Donate a Pad for Hygiene Bangladesh is running awareness programs in schools in different districts of Bangladesh, and donating pads to school girls who are reluctant to buy them. 

Youth’s Voice Foundation has been working with menstrual hygiene management for the past three years. 

“We decided to start the campaign on a national level to advocate and educate adolescent girls and young women so that they understand from an early age what menstruation is and how it should be handled with proper hygiene,” explained Tahmid Kamal Chowdhury, founder and president of Youth’s Voice Foundation.

The foundation has mobile teams that conduct awareness campaigns in different garments factories and educational institutes.

The organization also holds a mass campaign, where hundreds of cyclists from five districts hit the road every year on World Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), to raise awareness and get people to talk about menstruation. 

“Breaking the taboo surrounding this issue is not just necessary for preventing health hazards, but also to end social discrimination against women,” said Tahmid.