Lifting taboo on menstruation


THE issue of period poverty, which is defined as inability of a menstruating person to access sanitary products due mainly to financial constraints, has been receiving some attention in the Malaysian media of late.

Reports on women and girls who do not have enough resources to purchase sanitary pads are still surprising to some people even though there have been efforts by individuals and groups to create awareness about the issue.

For example, SPOT Malaysia and RedTalks Malaysia co-hosted the Merdeka Menstrual forum in November last year along with several other partners to discuss the issue, which, among others, causes girls to skip school every month during their period and miss out on their education.

Under the auspices of the Youth and Sports Ministry, an NGO called Mycorps Alumni introduced its BUNGA Pads initiative in July last year to provide free sanitary napkins to underprivileged female students in and outside Malaysia. It also conducts a Pad4Her campaign to create more awareness on school absenteeism due to the problem and raise funds to finance its initiative. GerakMalaysia is also running an ongoing campaign called #PeduliMerah.

Despite these efforts, we are still lacking the numbers as well as research on period poverty in Malaysia that could lead to resolving the issue.

Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh in November 2019 called for identifying school children who do not have access to sanitary products. I am currently doing a study on the issue among young women, and there is still so much to uncover.

According to the United Nation’s definition, period poverty includes the poverty or lack of four elements – menstrual product, menstrual education, privacy, and access to sanitary disposal, toilets, water and hand-washing facilities.

Looking at this definition, we need to consider the other three elements in the Malaysian context; not having menstrual products or sanitary pads is only a quarter of the issue.

What we are experiencing now is threefold period poverty – menstrual illiteracy, product poverty and the lack of hygienic set-ups.

First, young women are not getting the correct education they need about menstruation and how to properly manage it.

Second, toilets at home and public spaces, including schools, do not cater for proper disposal of sanitary products and do not provide facilities for proper hand-washing, including soap.

Third, a number of women (too many) do not have access to menstrual products or do not have enough to manage a hygienic practice, for example they might have sanitary pads but are limited to one a day.

As an issue, period poverty in Malaysia is bigger than lack of sanitary products, as menstruation is still a taboo topic for most people here and the problem remains hidden and is laden with misinformation. Young women are learning less about menstrual hygiene and menstruation and more about taboos and the “shame” of having periods.

In short, young women are taught to keep menstruation invisible by not discussing it in public, hiding their sanitary pads and not telling anyone when they are having their menses.

It is not surprising then that when women do not have sanitary pads, they do not talk about it; or when young women have their period, they may choose to skip school rather than experience the shame of suffering a leakage.

The shame surrounding menstruation restricts much of the necessary discussion about it. This shame is not only affecting women but also men. Period poverty affects society at large. We need to remove this shame before we can begin any conversation about period poverty.

FATIMAH AL-ATTAS

Kuala Lumpur


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