Breaking generations of stigma around menstruation in Nepal
Shibu Shrestha writes about training Nepalese students to think differently about menstruation.
Walking through Bidur municipality in the hills of central Nepal, one can see life being put back together. Some areas still have scars of devastation from the 2015 earthquake, while others show signs of rising from the rubble. In the heart of Bidur, there are small bustling markets, fruit vendors, vehicles and people rushing around. An hour drive away from the city center, one sees little tin houses, sheds for cows and goats, no proper roads and people getting on with their lives.
For girls living in this vibrant community, one of the greatest challenges they face is something they can’t control — menstruation. Instead of being celebrated as a natural process, girls and women in Bidur who are menstruating are labeled as “nachuni,” meaning untouchable. While on their periods, they aren’t allowed to enter the kitchen or cook for themselves, they can’t touch male members of their families and they are prohibited from participating in religious ceremonies.
Going to school in Bidur presents even more hurdles. Bathrooms don’t have proper toilets, water supply or dustbins. Some girls must carry their used sanitary pads back home to dispose of them. Students find it difficult to openly talk to teachers about menstruation. Because of all these challenges, girls often miss four days of classes a month, ultimately affecting their education and overall school performance.
As a member of the nonprofit Visible Impact, I work to break down these stigmas regarding menstruation in Nepal. With support from GIZ Nepal, I recently helped to lead four days of trainings in Bidur for 14- and 15-year-old students to challenge taboos surrounding menstruation and develop friendly attitudes about menstrual health among youth.
During our workshops, we explained to students about puberty, as well as the physiological process of menstruation, products to using during your cycle and myths surrounding periods. The emphasis was on introducing participants to innovative products such as menstrual cups and reusable sanitary pads, which aren’t traditionally found in Bidur markets. We also taught leadership and communication skills to ensure that students are able to share what they learned about menstruation with their friends, teachers, families and community members.
I believe it is important to include both female and male students in our workshops to highlight that menstruation isn’t just a women’s issue. Men have a vital role to play in ensuring that communities are menstrual-friendly environments. They can help advocate for policy changes to improve menstrual facilities for girls. During the training, the male students identified ways they could support girls and women, including not teasing them about menstruation, buying them sanitary products and cooking for them.
The students came to the trainings with eagerness to learn, excitement to make new friends, but also confusion on why males were invited to a training on menstruation. There was also some confusion about menstruation myths, such as, “menstruating women and girls shouldn’t eat certain foods, like yoghurt, vegetables, cold water, because they harm her body” and “a woman or girl should not attend religious functions during her menstrual period even if she wants to.” We focused on debunking these myths by showing them the facts and letting them draw conclusions on their own.
In order to end stigmas around menstruations, adolescents need to have the confidence to speak up and talk about it. They should initiate discussions with their elders and understand their perspectives. Practices that have deep culture roots take time to change. But we can break the chain of transfer of such practices down the generation.
The students who have gone through Visible Impact’s trainings are now able to spread our menstrual-friendly messages throughout their communities. One of the girls shared what she learned in the training with her schoolmates and teachers. During her presentation to the school, she also pointed out to the principal how water isn’t available in the washrooms and that this needs to be fixed.
Our students are creating change and stimulating conversations in their schools and families to ensure that one day soon, Bidur will be a menstrual-friendly place for all its residents.
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About the author
Shibu Shrestha is a public health graduate advocating for young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. She loves to cook and believes in perseverance being the key to any positive change.