WHILE menstruation is a normal biological process, some cultures still view it as taboo.
There are euphemisms about a woman having her period, from "time of the month" to "cuti" (or holiday in Malay) since during menstruation, a Muslim woman is exempted from religious rituals.Educational psychologist Dr Rajalakshmi Ganesan says in many families, when a girl gets her period, the conversation only takes place between mother and daughter and is kept very discreet.
"Without understanding the real context of restrictions during menstruation, menstruation is simply treated as something that is "unclean", she says.
"These social restrictions may cause girls to grow up thinking that their period is something to be ashamed of," she says, given that girls begin menstruation at an age when they are impressionable and finding their footing where identities and self-esteem are concerned.
“Without understanding the context of restrictions, boys in the family who see how their sister’s life is 'changing' because of her period, may also be indoctrinated with the same stigma,” she says.
How families can help
Rajalakshmi says parents can help daughters deal with different aspects of puberty by educating both girls and boys in the family about menstruation from a biological and psychological standpoint, from an early stage.
"With adolescent girls experiencing puberty, parents may need to help them rationalise their mood swings. Parents can also help adolescent girls build emotional resilience through healthier lifestyle such as hydration, diet, exercise, meditation and healthy sleep patterns, among others. Through this, adolescent girls can manage their emotions and this will help foster positive self-belief," she says.
While it is important to educate girls that menstruation is normal and that it doesn't undermine their potential, it is also important to de-stigmatise periods among boys and men.
"When they learn that their sisters are managing themselves well during menstruation and are just as capable as they are in many areas, boys grow up to be more emphatic and understanding," she says.
Social enterprise Athena Empowers founder Anja Juliah Abu Bakar says a conducive learning environment is important to provide children with a sense of well-being while also offering them opportunities for healthy interaction.
"To create that sense of well-being, young girls need to feel supported both physically and emotionally in school. This includes normalising and destigmatising periods. Boys and girls should learn to empathise and understand that pre-menstrual syndrome and menstrual bleeding are just part of a woman’s biological process," she says.
"When a young girl is experiencing different emotions, she should also be able to talk about it openly with her peers or counselling teacher. And, if she leaks while engaging in sporting events, no one should tease or create memes out of her situation. When she needs to change her pad, the school toilet must be clean and equipped with proper sanitation facility,” Anja says.
Another social enterprise founder, Alma Artin Vaqari feels that period stigma exists in school, and is carried on to university even though girls are more mature then.
"Some girls would avoid physical education for a fear of leakage which may cause them to be perceived as 'impure’,” says the Universiti Malaya graduate who founded Kita Geenius, that helps refugees with education.
Rajalakshmi, Anja Juliah and Alma were all speaking at a panel discussion held during the Kotex She Can fund handover ceremony. For this edition, the grants will be used for projects to make schools more conducive for girls.