The Menstrual Dilemma Leaving Girls in the Dark

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  • Menstrual products. Photo by: Stella Reeve

    Menstrual products. Photo by: Stella Reeve

    By: Stella Reeve | Stella Reeve traveled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility Scheme.

    Lestari’s first encounter with her period at the age of 12 was tainted by confusion and fear. She hadn’t been taught about what she would experience when having a period, or the biological change in her body that would mean she could now fall pregnant. Lestari tried to keep it a secret from her family and friends, but her classmates found out anyway. They teased and mocked her, which made her feel isolated and embarrassed.

    Lestari’s experience is common among Indonesian girls. The stigma around menstruation is rooted in social, cultural and religious norms that have far-reaching consequences. Young girls are not equipped with the correct information to ensure their safety, from basic hygiene to preventing unplanned pregnancies. 

    While there has been progress in urban areas, the stigma around menstruation remains acute in rural Indonesia such as East Java and parts of Sulawesi. 

    A compounding problem is that menstruation is culturally viewed as disgusting and dirty in many areas of Indonesia, says a midwife with the Indonesian Midwives Association, Mitra Kadarsih.

    “Girls have to carefully wash their used menstrual products and then wrap them up because if the garbage men see any evidence, they will refuse to take the trash,” she says.

    These beliefs contribute to the narrative of secrecy and shame that accompanies menstruation.

    Indonesian girls often find their first period to be a scary experience because they so frequently have no knowledge of what is happening to them, says Halimah Irna P, a Planned Parenthood Indonesia monitoring and evaluation officer.

    Halimah Irna P says a lot of parents don’t give their young girls enough information about menstruation. Photo by Stella Reeve.

    Irna points to different religious and local cultural traditions that can create feelings of disconnection and alienation, in addition to an already confronting experience for the girls.

    “There’s a cultural tradition in which a girl who has her period for the first time will be put in a hut outside the family home,” she says, referring to a practice that still occurs in many parts of Indonesia.

    A recent survey by government and academic researchers, published in Tropical Medicine and International Health, found that 64 percent of girls aged 12 to 19 across urban and rural areas of Indonesia reported poor menstrual hygiene practices and 11 percent had missed school due to their period.

    The report identified that girls who have insufficient knowledge and resources face heavy challenges. Examples are inadequate access to water and wash facilities to keep clean, lack of places to change feminine hygiene products, and limited means to keep their feminine products hidden from others and to dispose of them privately. Girls were often unaware of the options available for pain relief and had little guidance from their family about these matters, which increased their chances of missing school.

    A 2015 Burnet Institute report similarly highlights the education gap. Due to lack of resources, girls in rural areas were found to be wearing menstrual products for longer than eight hours at a time, subjecting them to serious health risks such as toxic shock syndrome.

    The report exposes the need for formal standardization of menstrual education in both private and public schools. This would help improve menstrual practices and the attitudes towards menstruation in Indonesia.

    The stigma around menstruation is part of a wider issue regarding the lack of sexual education that leads to misconceptions, says the Vice-Director of the Jakarta Feminist advocacy and campaign group, Anindya Restuviani.

    “When there is a lot of misinformation, it’s very dangerous to our well-being in terms of reproductive health because a lot of people don’t understand that when they start menstruating, they can get pregnant.”

    The problem lies with the fact that some people think teaching sexual and reproductive health in school encourages young women to have sex, Restuviani says. 

    This arcane opinion is contested in an American review by the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which found that abstinence-only education programs failed to deter teenagers from having sex and violated their human rights. By withholding important medical information from both female and male adolescents, it adds to the confusion around sexual and reproductive health.

    Incorporating an integrative approach to education that involves the family, school and the students themselves in an inclusive environment will help bridge the education gap, says Islamic feminist and academic, Dr. Alimatul Qibtiyah.

    Sometimes, the language around sexual education can be confronting, so we need to change the language, she says.

    “Instead of sexual education, we use another term. We say ‘reproductive education’ because it’s a broader term. This is a strategy we use because it’s not a direct word, it’s an indirect word,” Alimatul says.

    Changing the current approach to educating children about sexual and reproductive health in a constructive manner will help ease the stigma as well as calm any concerns that further education may encourage sexual activity.

    Education regarding sexual and reproductive health can start at a very young age, Yayasan Angsamerah’s Director, Kurnia Dwijayanto, says. 

    “At four and five, we can start teaching children the correct names of the anatomy. At 11 and 12 years old, we can introduce the concept of pregnancy,” he says.

    Education is an ongoing process that we shouldn’t stop learning about, Dwijayanto says. Parents should start teaching their children at home to help them develop a proper understanding of their health, he advises.

    Heny Widyaningrum works closely with the community, organizing workshops and events to help inform people about sexual and reproductive health. Photo by Stella Reeve

    National Coordinator for Sexual and Reproductive Health at Planned Parenthood, Heny Widyaningrum, says if we can turn the stigma around starting within the family, it can work towards women looking after themselves in a more positive way. 

    “When I first got my period my mother bathed me with flowers and told me that I was growing up. She told me I had to start looking after myself,” says Heny.

    A step forward would be positive communication between mothers and daughters, Heny says, relating to her own relationship with her mother and daughters.

    Gifting young girls the tools to understand their own bodies will help shift the perspective on menstruation. 

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