Bangladesh, among many countries across the globe, is on the verge of destigmatising menstruation through incredibly symbolic customs and traditions in celebration of young girls on the precipice of becoming a woman. Chattogram, famously known as the port city, is home to many families who have lived up to the practice of welcoming their daughters into womanhood for generations.
According to their traditions, families tend to break the news of their daughter's period to the relatives and neighbours who are invited to gather around for a private celebration at home. Mothers treat everyone with a special dish called "Modhubhaat" (prepared with milk, sugar and rice). What's more joyous is that at the end of the daughter's cycle, she gets to go on a little vacation, which they refer to as "Nayyur", to her near and dear ones.
85-year-old Kulsum Khatun, who was born and raised in Teknaf, has shared a heart-warming account of when she reached that stage as a young girl.
"On the seventh day of my first period, there was a big celebration in my house, and we sent Modhubhaat and Shirni to our neighbours," recounts Kulsum.
"My grandmother gifted me new clothes and took me along to visit their home. It was quite memorable. I remember feeling incredibly special and joyous as everyone was celebrating me. I'll never forget that week for as long as I live," she gleamed in nostalgia.
Generations apart from Kulsum, young Tahiya Ali Rami, a 12-year-old resident of Cox's Bazar, was comforted by her mother to feel safe. She said, "At first, I couldn't understand what was happening to me. But when I shared this with my mother, she was quite elated. Later on, my relatives and friends got me a lot of nice gifts."
Besides Bangladesh, South Indian cultures consider a girl reaching puberty as 'auspicious'. In the Tamil community, the girl is bathed with turmeric and other herbs, dressed up and fed a nutritious meal, while family and friends gather around with priests performing rituals to wish her a healthy life.
Japan celebrates as the mother cooks a special traditional dish called Sekihan (made with sticky rice and red beans) for the daughter. Iceland makes quite the symbolic gesture with families baking an all red and white cake to treat their daughter at the onset of this new life event.
Hygiene and sanitation practice: the biggest concern with menstruation
During Kulsum's days, she only had access to the clean cloth as pads were not as common. But young Tahiya said she was guided by her mom and had immediate access to pads.
"Young girls are much more aware of menstruation and have better access to sanitation now than ever before," Dr Md Akramul Islam, senior director of Brac's Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programme, told The Business Standard.
Referring to the WASH projects based in Chattogram as well as across the country, he said, "We are steadfast on spreading awareness through schools by conducting menstrual hygiene programmes, ensuring water supply and building separate toilets for boys and girls alongside hand-washing stations.
"Our WASH projects aim to duly promote hygiene education in schools, with the help of teachers and students. We teach kids the importance of using safe water, and buckets to dump and dispose of sanitary pads. Students can also buy pads in case of emergencies from their teachers who keep them for no profit."
Akramul believes that with the help of their initiatives, the utilisation of sanitary products has improved on a large scale. Menstrual hygiene management is no longer an alarming health concern that puts the lives of young girls and women at risk.
He explained that Brac targeted schools from the perspective of sustainability, saying, "While going through village after village to promote hygiene, we realised that spreading awareness only among parents is not enough. So, we reached out to the kids; the future parents of the society. To sustain proper hygiene and health, we wanted to provide life-long education to instil this into the culture."
Is period still a taboo, though?
"Perhaps in the olden days, families would share the news to say their daughter is mature to be bestowed upon marriage," said Khadija Begum, a 40-year-old homemaker from Cox's Bazar. Though on some occasions, this would enable the occurrence of repercussive child marriage.
When a young girl gets her period for the first time, it comes with a kaleidoscope of emotions. It's scary, slightly embarrassing, confusing, and sometimes painful. No matter how prepared you are, it still comes as a shock.
Now imagine being ostracised for it. You're not allowed to leave the house or go to school. You're told to stay indoors, avoid people, and even avoid telling people that you got your period "because you're still too young". People tend to hide it when they menstruate. Some families still refer to the woman as being sick when her cycle hits.
Even though Kulsum's memories seemed exuberant, she still scoffed recalling the unfair restrictions her parents had imposed on her when she first got her period. "Nowadays girls roam about freely and can even go to school. When I got my first period, I wasn't allowed to step out of the house for seven whole days!"
Similarly, some South African cultures mark the occasion by keeping their daughters indoors, preserving them from any outside threat, as long as their period lasts.
Menstruation, a bodily function, has long been stigmatised. One of the most demeaning stigmas manifests with accusations that a person is PMS-ing (Pre-menstrual syndrome) or menstruating if they are perceived as behaving sensitively or emotionally. Despite hormones, period – among all anatomical significances – attests that a girl is healthy.
Though it might be a tad awry to blast confetti, cut a cake and blow candles, any negative attitude towards the period must be changed to prevent stigmatisation from looming large.
Meanwhile, Spain approved a draft bill that could make it the first European country to offer workers paid menstrual leave. If the law is passed, the government would cover time off for women, diagnosed by a doctor, who suffer from painful periods in an attempt toward destigmatisation. Whereas in Bangladesh, such an exemption for working women is a far cry, leaving more room for improvement regarding menstrual health.