By Vanly Keomuda
While searching for a good topic to write about for the Menstrual Health Day, I asked my friends what they know about the term “menstruation”. To my surprise, the term is foreign to them. However, when I simplified it to “having a period,” the air in the room changed.
The room became silent – the conversation was dead – and my friends’ faces went blank. I could feel that they were disturbed by the topic. This reaction is not something new; in fact, it is the typical reaction that I receive every time the word “period” is brought up in conversation. The reason is that the subject is considered a TABOO in Cambodia.
Growing up in a conservative culture like Cambodia, the topic of “menstruation” is a sensitive subject, that is largely forbidden to be discussed. When I got my first period, the first thing that I was told was not related to menstrual hygiene management, rather, it was about how to hide it from people. For example, when I got menstrual cramps, I was told to say that I have “a stomach-ache” or am just “feeling under the weather” because telling the truth about menstruation is considered embarrassing and shameful.
If discussion about menstruation at home is restricted when you are living in a conservative family, waiting to learn about it and other menstrual health-related issues at school are even more difficult. Lessons on menstruation are normally taught in grade 11, which is after the age that girls normally have their first period. Furthermore, these lessons on menstruation are usually in the last chapter of the textbook, something usually skipped or unable to be covered by the teachers since it is near the end of the school year. Even if the chapter could be covered, the lesson would only briefly touch on the issue without giving much information on menstrual health management or health-related issues.
Because of the taboo on menstruation, young girls in Cambodia have limited knowledge about their first period and how to manage their menses comfortably. According to Connally (2013), numerous girls were reported to be surprised or scared upon receiving their first period, with some even worried that they had a serious illness.
Moreover, the limited discussion on menstruation is also linked to the lack of knowledge in menstrual hygiene management. This can negatively impact girls’ health, education, and social participation, as girls and women would have inadequate knowledge on hygienic practices that should be followed during menstruation, like cleaning and disposal methods (Cowley, 2018; Sarma, 2018).
Health risks that stem from inadequate knowledge on menstrual hygiene management include reproductive or urinary tract infections, as well as an increased risk of cervical cancer (Sarma, 2018).
Besides putting women’s health in danger, the taboo on menstruation also affects participation in school, work, and other activities, due to the limited facilities and sanitary products that allow women to manage their period. For example, in Cambodia, young girls tend to miss classes during their period since schools do not have the sanitary materials or adequate toilet and handwashing facilities for school girls to change and dispose of their sanitary products (Cowley, 2018). As a result, school girls prefer to stay at home and use the toilet there instead, which results in an increase in absenteeism (Bell, 2016).
These serious health and social issues are a result of the limited discussion on menstruation. As such, more frank and open discussions on menstruation and menstrual hygiene management are needed.
Let’s break this taboo, starting with breaking the silence on “May 28 Menstrual Hygiene Day”. Regardless of your gender, let’s join in the discussion on menstruation and spread awareness on menstrual hygiene so that young girls and women can understand more about the natural changes to their bodies and be better prepared in taking care of their health and managing their menstrual hygiene.
Let’s start talking about it, break the taboo as menstruation is natural!
Views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of UNICEF.