Menstrual advocacy, sex education a 'pressing need' in Bhutan

Women and girls in Bhutan still think menstruation is a curse from God or disease, with many fearing they will be seen as possessed by evil spirits

Apr 03, 2021

Women and girls in Bhutan still think menstruation is a curse from God or disease, with many fearing they will be seen as possessed by evil spirits. Although some awareness campaigns have been launched in recent times, not much has changed in rural people’s attitudes and mindset about menstrual hygiene management.

With social, cultural, and religious stigma attached to menstruation, young girls and women face confusion as well as shame. This has deeply impacted them as they face discrimination for something that is a natural and healthy process a woman of reproductive age goes through.

“The topic of menstruation in Bhutan is under-researched, but the conversation around women’s health is growing. So, what is the current menstruation landscape in Bhutan? And what needs to be done to achieve menstrual equity? These questions need clear answers for policymakers and civil society groups to improve women’s lives,” wrote Kunensel newspaper in its editorial.

The newspaper quoted the 2017 UNICEF survey that came out with shocking findings. The first of its kind survey, which was carried out among adolescent schoolgirls across schools Bhutan and nunneries, found that a vast majority (83 percent) of the schoolgirls and nuns (43 percent) recognized menstruation as a “physiological process.”

The survey said that around two percent of schoolgirls and nuns (5.4 percent) defined menstruation as a disease, while about 1 percent of schoolgirls and 7.1 percent of nuns defined menstruation as a curse.

About 5.2 percent of the schoolgirls and nuns (37.5 percent) were of the opinion that menstruation is a ‘curse,’ while one out of every ten (10.4 percent) schoolgirls disagreed that ‘it is important to talk about the menstrual period with men.

About 21 percent of school girls and 33.2 percent of adolescent nuns agreed that women in menstruation are susceptible to get possessed by evil spirits. However, 50 percent of survey participants did not know the causes of menstruation. Over 75 percent of adolescent nuns and 55.8 percent of schoolgirls said it was important to buy sanitary pads without being seen. The idea behind the survey was to assess awareness about menstruation, and hygiene practices.

In a separate study by WaterAid and UNICEF, researchers found that a key barrier to menstrual education was the fact that teachers often reported “inadequate knowledge and training” on the matter, while many felt “uncomfortable teaching life skills or sexual and reproductive health,” the newspaper said.

Teachers not able to impart information about menstruation made it difficult for students to make an informed choice. What is needed is that taboos and misconceptions are addressed.

“Clearly, there is a pressing need in Bhutan for more comprehensive menstruation education for both students and teachers,” it said.

Without proper water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities, girls will often stay home during their menstrual cycles. High rates of absenteeism can have detrimental effects on women’s lives and the Bhutanese economy more broadly. Deployment and maintenance of WASH facilities in schools and nunneries is, therefore, key to promoting female education and economic growth, the newspaper said.

Women and young girls face discrimination and are not allowed to enter temples during menstruation, and they are shamed for even drying reusable pads. These misconceptions where women cannot talk about their bodily function also make them hesitate while seeking proper medical attention for menstruation-related conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, urinary tract infections, and yeast infections.

The stigma also forces girls to miss school during their periods. This kind of gender discrimination will stay in their mind forever and even impact them in the long run.

Recently campaigns like the ‘red dot’ and ‘happy to bleed’ have been launched that aims to promote hygiene menstruation practices, address misconceptions and taboos. And also try to protect women’s bodily dignity.

Some social media accounts -‘global shapers Thimphu and ‘respect educate nurture empower women’ - actively share posts on menstruation, thus helping create a safe and healthy environment for Bhutanese women.

“These platforms are promoting healthy menstruation practices, calling out taboos and misconceptions, and giving a voice to women to change the status quo of our menstruation culture for the better,” the editorial said.

These are just a few steps, much more is needed to be done, especially by government agencies.

It recommended that the Ministry of Education should prioritize educational reforms for both students and teachers to correct menstrual misconceptions. Education programmes on menstruation in schools and nunneries should be tailored to address social attitudes on menstruation and that covers menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

Focused national policies and budget support for menstrual hygiene products to improve MHM in a sustainable way. The government should implement a WASH policy that mandates safe, clean, and functioning facilities for menstrual hygiene, such as gender-specific toilets, provisions for disposing of period-related products, and handwashing facilities. Moreover, period products should be free, especially in schools, it highlighted.

It said that the ministry along with the National Assembly should allocate budget resources to provide free sterile sanitary pads and other alternative products in schools.

“Fiscal incentives are needed for menstrual equity. Similar to countries like Scotland and New Zealand, the government of Bhutan should abolish the ‘pink tax’ - a 5 percent sales tax on sanitary products imported from India, and a 30 percent import tax plus 5 percent sales tax on sanitary products imported from other countries. Menstruation-related products should be tax-free,” it added.

“Menstrual advocacy should be part of greater sexual education generally. Conversations surrounding menstrual health and stigmas should be part of a broader push to tackle other sexual stigmas, such as homosexual and transgender rights. In supporting greater menstrual education, the government, NGOs, and youth organizations should also champion rights for all marginalized people facing sexual discrimination,” it summed up.

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