We need to stop treating menstruation as a ‘fault’

Published: May 28, 2015
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The bloody taboo refuses to be broken. Recently, an urban affluent woman was overheard commenting that advertisements for these products should be banned. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

“So what do you do when you… you know… have your monthly period?” I said to my domestic helper, after my mouth-gaping-open-in-shock reaction was over and I found my voice.

For an urban woman, what she was telling me was unthinkable. I was truly scandalised that many women in Pakistan’s underprivileged parts walk around with no sanitary cloth or napkins when they have their menstrual period. Others do use folded pieces of cloth, she told me, but even then the hygiene conditions she was describing were hardly satisfactory.

The year was 2010. Pakistan had been hit by one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history – floods that affected the lives of some 20 million people. My friends and I were collecting donations and sending them off to remote villages and affected areas. Those working on ground were asking us to send dry food items, bedding, medicines, clothes and basic items like soaps and sanitary napkins.

“People here are breaking out into skin infections due to the stagnating dirty water. Women need their supplies for menstrual hygiene,” was the message we got.

Yet, here was a Pakistani woman hailing from a rural area, educating me in a basic reality – that even if we did send sanitary napkins, would those women, for whom even seeing a midwife in pregnancy is a luxury, know how to use it?

But then, realistically, is menstrual hygiene even a priority to ponder about for people living below the poverty line, unable to even get two square meals? It is all good, noble and convenient for me and my likes, to sit in our comfortable homes in the cities and talk down to poor women about how filthy is the way they handle something so basic. The reality is they have not had the exposure, nor the access to things we take for granted.

As the world celebrates Global Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, how far is Pakistan, in reality, from providing its female citizens the means to go through a natural physiological process with dignity?

Research points out that almost 50 per cent of Pakistani girls in rural areas and underprivileged circumstances miss school during their menstrual period, and absenteeism in school can improve drastically if they have access to protective material and proper toilet facilities at school. Yet, sanitary cloth and napkins remain not a basic need but a luxury for Pakistan’s daughters who cannot afford them, or are simply unaware. The problem becomes even gorier when faced by displaced women living in slums, camps for IDPs or in nomadic setups.

To go through their monthly cycle hygienically and in a dignified manner, girls and women need access to water and proper sanitation. Privacy is needed to change; water and soap is needed to wash their hands and the cloths if they are using those, and means to either dispose used materials or a private place to dry them in case of reusable cloths.

Poverty, however, is not the only issue here. The bloody taboo refuses to be broken. Recently, an urban affluent woman was overheard commenting that advertisements for these products should be banned. Giving credit where due, advertisements for sanitary napkins are actually now more decent than many other ads, and are actually more educative in nature in an attempt to raise awareness.

A two-pronged approach will, therefore, have to be adopted to help women of Pakistan triumph against the lack of a basic human right. For starters, they will have to be educated about the health-related consequences of not maintaining menstrual hygiene management (MHM). As a society, we will have to learn more about it. Systems have to be evolved for disposal of the waste cloths and napkins to not make it an environmental hazard, as well as let women have the dignity to dispose it respectfully.

Secondly, access to products that help women at a low cost is something we need to think about. Whether it be clean cotton or rags, or affordable napkins, women everywhere should have the right to procure them and use them. We need more initiatives to address the problem.

It is time the world stops treating menstruation as a fault for which women continue to pay a price by facing embarrassment and helplessness.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of marketing and corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets on @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at chaaidaani.wordpress.com/

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • AyeshaL
  • SuperNeo™

    Its a Huge Taboo/fault in pakistan, otherwise author would have used pakistani female picture at least for this article.Recommend

  • Syed Imran Sardar- Researcher

    wonderful and thought-provoking-
    I agree this is neglected area, and needs serious attention as every woman faces embarrassment these days and try hard to keep it private, hidden, and do things in hurry, that leads to many infectious diseases. In a Muslim society, admittedly, woman needs privacy, but the husbands, mothers have to play a big role and help them in keeping hygienic, and society overall do not regard it as a fault and filthy, even in schools, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) should be taught.Recommend

  • 4reebleeding

    #freebleedingRecommend

  • http://wwww.memonammar.blogspot.com Ammar Ahmed

    The article ended earlier than I thought. Bina Shah’s article in Dawn is incomplete alike this. Recommend

  • fatima

    I really appreciate a writer to indicate such an important topic of our society. Menstruation is not only taboo for one class, it’s stigma attached to the society.Recommend

  • Brar

    In some states like Maharashtra the women are not allowed to enter the kitchen during this period and her utensils are also separated, this is the state of affairs in our poor societies and only education will lead to better management.Recommend

  • https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=8559594100366660134#allposts Supriya Arcot

    Rules are always made keeping some good in mind . There is nothing poor or uneducated about this . It was / is / will be done all over the subcontinent . Traditional homes still have a seperate room for ‘such days’ ( not in big cities , though, for lack of space ) . We must remember in those days there were no disposable higenic cloths for this . Imagine a young DIL being coerced into heavy work ( like grinding / cooking / drawing water ) by her MIL during this time. So in a way , it works in her favour to sit ‘apart’ . Temples / kitches etc are public places and without proper hygene , others might get infected as blood carries germs etc.,Recommend

  • Nasrullah Khan

    It is a good article.
    Although sanitary cloth and napkins are a basic need but a luxury for Pakistan’s daughters because they cannot afford them. However, it does not mean that they walk around without folded pieces of cloth to be used for this purpose.Recommend

  • kashif

    I agreed with you in this important and natural need of our half part of society based upon women.Recommend