Menstrual hygiene taboos and their negative effects on women (examples from Nepal and elsewhere)

  • F H Mughal
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Menstrual hygiene taboos and their negative effects on women (examples from Nepal and elsewhere)

According to recent news ( www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/nepali-gi...161219090727200.html ), a 15-year-old Nepali girl, Roshani Tiruwa, was suffocated to death, after she was made to sleep in a shed because she was menstruating.

The girl was banished to a shed because she was menstruating. She probably died of suffocation from the smoke of a fire she lit to keep herself warm. Some Hindus view menstruating women as impure and, in parts of Nepal, they are forced to remain in a hut or cowshed for days, a practice known as chhaupadi.

The girl was a ninth grader at Rastara Bhasah Secondary School and, was undergoing the third day of menstruation at the time of her death.

Penny and Jen: What can be done to stop this unfortunate practice?

F H Mughal

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  • Ilham
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Re: Reply: Studies on MHM and schoolgirls' health and schooling - and possible impact or otherwise on absenteeism

Dear Penny and Jen,

This is a very sad and unfortunate phenomenon where a young girl is put in such a circumstance ( losing her life)when the natural course of life (menstruation) is taking place. This may be one of the few documented stories that we sadly hear about and yet we ask ourselves what can we do? We have no time to ask ourselves, it is time to ACT. Many young women go through so much during menstruation and have to stop school and other chores and be cast out of their homes just because of their bodies trying to go through their normal monthly process.

The sad bit is that we have never viewed this as a problem affecting young girls and thus we never take actions to stop such stigma. If we are capable of providing free condoms for partners who cannot be satisfied with one partner and we allow them to continue with acts and just be safe, we can also give free pads to rural school girls and ensure that they also do not miss out on anything at school or at home and also we can educate the communities on menstruation and the science behind it. We need to do something, policies must be set to allow young girls to enjoy their period and not view it as a curse.

I am very saddened by this.

Regards, Ilham.
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  • muench
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Re: Reply: Studies on MHM and schoolgirls' health and schooling - and possible impact or otherwise on absenteeism

(in my role as moderator: we're deviating a bit from the main topic of this thread, so I might split off the last few posts into a new thread soon; but for now I will leave it as it is, in oder to not disturb the flow of conversation)

Hi,

Mughal and Ilham: you rightly asked what could be done. I think we're already contributing to solving this problem simply by talking about it. Breaking taboos around menstruation, that's what it's all about, I think. Talking amongst men, women, boys and girls (not just amongst us women).

I read an article about this taboo issue today here (in Newsweek after seeing it on twitter):
europe.newsweek.com/womens-periods-menst...ns-pads-449833?rm=eu

Title:
The fight to end period shaming is going mainstream

I think the article is making good points, but is perhaps a bit overly optimistic regarding the "mainstream" part (or perhaps it's more mainstream in the U.S. now?). The article also gets perhaps a bit side tracked by talking in great length about tampons and toxic shock syndrome and about various kinds of pads (I wonder why menstrual cups are only mentioned twice in the article even though they are known to avoid the problem of toxic shock syndrome completely).

From the article I get the impression that a huge step forward can be taken if more celebrities talk about menstruation in public, on TV, on the radio etc.

Another thing that I wonder about: these menstruation taboos in developing countries - was there any posititive initial reason for them which has been forgotten about in later times? For example, if a menstruation woman was "banished" from the household to a shed, was it perhaps meant to give her some relaxation time with less work to be done for 5 days? Perhaps this was welcome if she was suffering from cramps anyhow? Perhaps only later the stigma was added and the time in the hut became uncomfortable for her?
Does anyone know about the origins of these habits and practices around menstruation?
If we understood the origins (and if there were any positive aspects about them) then perhaps we could work with people to moderate the habits and turn them back into something positive?

And a simple aim could be this: There should never ever be a girl who has not been told about the simple, positive and healthy facts of menstruation well before the age of when she could start menstruating (e.g. around the age of 10 years old) to avoid that the poor young girl is shocked and scared when she bleeds for the first time in her life! It should be something to look forward to because even if it is quite "annoying", it is still a sign that you are "normal and healthy" and that you could have children later in life if you wanted to.


Regards,
Elisabeth

P.S. Thanks, Penny for your words of praise! I do love my moderator job, and I do love to see interesting people discuss important topics in depth, like in this thread - thanks to you and the others! Thank you for your support! :-) )

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  • JenniferRubli
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Re: studies on MHM and schoolgirls' health and schooling

Hi Mughal, Ilham,

I was devastated to read about this as well - as Elisabeth astutely pointed out, I also think that it's one of the few instances we actually hear about. Many more are, I think, simply considered a 'fact of life.'

One of the biggest ways we can combat this is through community sensitisation. It's not enough just to do programmes/interventions with girls in schools, because if their families and men in their lives still subscribe to these myths and traditions and enforce them, if they ban the use of whatever method of menstrual management has been distributed, nothing will change. It's vital that the entire community, especially influential cultural/religious leaders, are educated and able to support the women and schoolgirls. This is one of the things Femme is working on expanding, as there has been feedback on programme beneficiaries who were not allowed to use their menstrual cups due to beliefs regarding virginity, stretching the vagina, cups causing cancer, etc.

In addition, if governments ban such practices, as I believe happened in Nepal, there needs to be a plan to monitor and enforce, including consequences. This being said, an inflexible, hard-line approach that does not include education and sensitisation will be just as ineffective.

Cheers,
Jen
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  • PaminFinland
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Re: Reply: Studies on MHM and schoolgirls' health and schooling - and possible impact or otherwise on absenteeism

Just a reply on the chhaupadi hut practices. I'm working with a Finnish-Nepali bilateral water Project in the area where these are a practice. We are doing a lot of campaigning on menstrual hygiene management issues.
I'm afraid that going to the hut doesn't give the girl or woman a rest. Because they can't go into the kitchen during menstruation or do any cooking, it means that somene else has to do it (eg. mother in law). So the menstruating woman has to do extra outside jobs - collecting firewood or fodder for the animals. This also applies to women giving birth - they give birth in the hut and normally stay there for some 10 days.
While the idea that there was an initial positive reason is nice to think about, I'm afraid there wasn't. The reason for these practices is the taboo surrounding menstruation - that a woman becomes untouchable during this time. It is believed that she will make her husband sick if she touches him. She can't eat dairy products as it is believed that the cow will become sick and die. She can't go into the kitchen as this would defile it in the eyes of the gods. She can't touch the tap in many communities, as water is holy. In other communities menstruating women can touch the tap but can't touch water inside their house. Most critically, menstruating women can't use the toilet in many locations, because they might 'make it dirty'. This is a huge issue for the national sanitation campaign.
We are doing a lot of campaigning and behaviour change communication activities, targeting different groups in the community. This includes work with religious leaders and older women - who are the two main groups enforcing these practices.
The Government has banned the used of the huts, but many communities have never heard about this legal decision. It needs capacity building with the leadership, as well as an understanding of how dangerous this is.
Change is happening gradually - for instance some communities are taking the decision to pull down their menstruation huts, and sleep inside the house. But it is very slow progress - this is such a huge cultural issue that it takes time to change hearts and minds.
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  • F H Mughal
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Re: Reply: Studies on MHM and schoolgirls' health and schooling - and possible impact or otherwise on absenteeism

Dear Jen and Pamela,

Your posts are informative and interesting. I was amazed at reading the taboo scenario:

a woman becomes untouchable during this time. It is believed that she will make her husband sick if she touches him. She can't eat dairy products as it is believed that the cow will become sick and die. She can't go into the kitchen as this would defile it in the eyes of the gods. She can't touch the tap in many communities, as water is holy. In other communities menstruating women can touch the tap but can't touch water inside their house. Most critically, menstruating women can't use the toilet in many locations, because they might 'make it dirty'

As I understand, it is the male population that needs to change their mindset on menstruation. You can develop and show videos of lady doctors, telling them that menstruation is a natural process, and women can’t be “humiliated” on account of this natural system.

Pamela: Is this practice of chhaupadi restricted to few villages, or, is widespread in the rural areas?

Regards,

F H Mughal

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  • PaminFinland
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Re: Menstrual hygiene taboos and their negative effects on women (examples from Nepal and elsewhere)

Hi,
In fact it is both the women and the men who need to change their mindset. Older women (the powerful mother-in-law) tend to say that they did it that way and their daughter-in-law has to as well. They are often the enforcer of religious traditions in the house too. Older men and the religious leaders are also important influencers on this issue.
Young men tend to be much more relaxed about it - they have often worked away from the village and understand that they won't actually get sick if touched! But because they are working outside for much of the year, they aren't around to support their wives in changing the practice. Even our staff often say that they don't believe it, but because their mother is living with them, they have to comply.
Women are also anxious about changing - it is very easy, in a remote location, to make a connection between someone getting sick and your 'wrong' practice. So they usually are too frightened to change. They are generally low in the pecking order in the household also.
The use of the chhaupadi hut is only in some districts nowadays. But the taboos of tap, toilet and food are quite widespread, sadly.
At least now the subject is discussed more widely.
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  • muench
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Re: Menstrual hygiene taboos and their negative effects on women (examples from Nepal and elsewhere)

(in my role as moderator, I have now created this new thread as we were deviating from the topic of school absenteeism. Is the new thread title that I have chosen good?)

Dear Pamela and all,

Fascinating conversation, thanks very much. I am learning heaps!
I wasn't aware of the negative role of older women in this case. Very sad. Reminds me of the case of female genital mutilation where also some older women are very march part of "system" who want to continue with that practice (even though they suffered themselves from it!). See also here on the forum:
forum.susana.org/component/kunena/257-female-genital-mutilation

Has anyone ever dug into the history of these practices in Nepal or in other Hindu cultures. Was there ever a "positive" aspect to it or was it right from the start a form of a power game, i.e. to keep women low and rob them of self-esteem and freedom?? I do wonder when it started because I cannot imagine that it has "always" been like that? Are there parallels or differences to other cultures, e.g. compared to Islam, Judaism or Christianity? Has it got something to do with the amount of superstition pervading in a society?

And interesting that you mention the more positive attitude of young men in this context. Do you think that with increasing urbanisation and more widespread use of mobile phones, allowing people to access social media, read about how life is in other countries etc. this problem might solve itself almost on its own? It is in that sense just a matter of time? (but nevertheless we should help speed up this process)

By the way, this is not restricted to menstrual hygiene. In the HIFA Dgroup that I follow ( dgroups.org/hifa "Healthcare Information For All") they regularly discuss how to combat myths and practices that are detrimental to people's health and mental well-being. A few myths that come to mind from recent posts in that forum (provided by health practitioners' observations from various countries, mainly in Africa and Asia):
  1. When a woman dies in childbirth it is a sign that the husband had cheated on her and thus it's a punishment by God for him.
  2. Newborn babies should not drink the early milk (colostrum) from a mother's breasts but only be given water initially.
  3. Babies with diarrhea should not be breastfed until the diarrhea has gone away.
  4. When you're breastfeeding you should not have sex with your husband (resulting in mothers stopping breast feeding earlier than necessary)
Perhaps we could join up forces with our colleagues from the health sector and learn how they tackle such taboos and myths (and also make sure they don't overlook issues around menstrual hygiene).

Regards,
Elisabeth

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  • Marijn Zandee
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Re: Menstrual hygiene taboos and their negative effects on women (examples from Nepal and elsewhere)

Dear all,

Here is a link to a Guardian article, which describes the overall context in which Chhaupadi is placed. Though it is not that much of an addition to the quite informative posts of, especially, Pamila below.

www.theguardian.com/global-development-p...-taboo-nepal-periods

It seems to me that the topic of ending Chhaupadi does gradually get more coverage in the mainstream media in Nepal (I guess the paper I read had something like 5 articles in the last year), but these media outlets may not have much reach beyond the urban centers. Also, as the article I linked makes clear, Chhaupadi is an extreme version of the many issues caused by stigmas on menstruation. Which is only one of the issues of inequality that women are faced with in Nepal...

Whether the changing attitude of the young will help in the long run? I hope so, though sometimes I feel humans have a tendency to resort to more traditional practices as they get older. Having said that, a lot of ideas and perceptions in Nepal are shifting so maybe this one will (hopefully) stick.

Marijn Zandee

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