Ending ‘Period Poverty’: Wings for Girls in Sri Lanka!

Scotland became the first country in the world that ended ‘period poverty’. The success story emerged as a result of an effort of a six months pilot project that provided sanitary napkins and hygiene products to poverty stricken Scottish women. It is not a surprise if one wonders how such a project can end poverty. 

The 28-day menstruation cycle is a natural phenomenon that prepares a woman for motherhood. The menstruation (bleeding) that happens every 28 days, the beginning and end of this process, is like a mild punishment imposed on women by the nature. As a result, the blood starts to flow along her thighs giving excruciating pain in her lower abdomen. This is the natural way of the body removing the necrobiotic tissues or dead tissues of the uterus. In the conventional Sri Lankan terms this is the issue that put a woman strictly on house arrest. According to traditional ‘virtues’ she is ‘dirty’.  

In Sri Lanka a woman having menstruation is not allowed to enter a ‘devalaya’ or practice / take part in rituals like prophesy and astrology. Even on non- menstruating days, women are not allowed to enter the ‘patthirippuva’ of the temple of the sacred tooth relic where the tooth relic of the Buddha is kept. Considering historical chronicles that mention how the sacred tooth relic reached Sri Lanka, one would wonder whether Princess Hemamala never encountered menstruation during her months long tour from India with Prince Dantha securely carrying the Buddha’s tooth relic tucked in her hair! 

Due to this natural phenomenon, a woman is forced to bear serious mental and physical ordeal at least three days a month and a majority of this society is used to humiliate this tormenting experience. The belief is that a woman has to bear the consequences without any complaints simply because she happens to be born as a woman. This bearing is not just physical. A woman has to deal with the simple facts such as using and choosing sanitary napkins and to emotional stresses of avoiding the male members of the family and covering her lower body with a dirty old cloth.  

Women in our neighbouring state India faced similar consequences until recent times slightly changed to the positive. Fortunately, as Indian women had a stronger civil society organization support than Sri Lanka, they raised their voices and held open discussions. News reports from India stated that as a result a few months ago the Government brought in regulations to end the tax on sanitary napkins. It implied that the Government should not impose tax on personal hygiene utilities for women. The attempt of the Government to earn money from such venues was openly humiliated. As of latest reports, today in India sanitary napkins and cloths used during menstruation are collected at centres for research on cervical cancer. 

Today, eradicating period poverty is a global phenomenon. From the United States of America through Europe to Nepal, period poverty is discussed. Women are chased out of their homes during their menstruation period in Nepal, renowned as the birthplace of Buddha, the great leader who preached equality. They need to live in a ‘period hut’; in rural areas this is mostly the cattle shed. Being born to a foolish family the girl or the woman has to live several days among a herd of cattle, sleeping on hay. This ritual is called ‘Chahupadi’. Apart from being trampled by cattle she is at risk of getting raped by perverts of the village. To pervert men this is an opportunity as everyone knows sexual intercourse does not make women pregnant if it happens during the menstruation period. There had been media reports on women and girls dying due to venomous snake bites while living in these sheds. Conditions are similar to all Nepali women of fertile age, even a mother with an infant child has to spend days in the shed with the child. The main reason, as they say, is that the family cannot pay homage to the deities when an impure woman is living in the house. As these women are considered ‘dirty’ they are neither allowed to consume milk nor touch vegetables. 

The Supreme Court of Nepal banned this ritual in 2005. In 2008, directives were issued to eradicated ‘Chahupadi’. Despite the efforts, still 70% of Nepali women are still chased out to the cattle shed during the menstruation period. Some still believe that continuing education and handling books by girls during menstruation can disappoint deities. Therefore girls are not allowed to go to school. Even if they are allowed only old pieces of cloth will be available to give to these girls to wear during menstruation as mothers cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins. Schools are not equipped with disposing methods for sanitary napkins. In a recent event, reported from Tamilnadu, a school girl has committed suicide when humiliated by the teacher for the blood stain on the uniform of the girl. As the reports stated, the girl was asked to lift her shalwar inside the class which was a mixed classroom and seeing the blood stain the teacher has humiliated the girl saying ‘if you cannot bring a sanitary napkin keep this’ and has given the duster to the girl. According to currently available statistics at least 3000 girls annually stop schooling being unable to bear humiliation during their menstruation period. 

In such a backdrop, it is timely to evaluate the true Sri Lankan situation. The situation need to be analyzed from the day a girl attain age, which in most cases happen at school. For boys, being brought up with the influence of ultra conservative families, this is a hilarious moment. A girl attaining age at school becomes the breaking news of that day. Female teachers act in dismay blaming the girl for ‘making’ it happens during school hours. Certain female teachers, who act as models of virtue, freak out. 

This tribal mentality is yet to be understood. In a society where girls and boys are brought up as different species this is expected. In an education system, where sex education is absent and with hardly taught lessons on reproductive health, children go astray. This uneducated curiosity leads boys to watch pornography at a very tender age. What happens to girls? 

A fine example of the girls’ fate is mentioned in the award winning Sinhala novel ‘Senkottan’ by Mahinda Prasad Masimbula. In one chapter, written in the back cover of the book mentions an advice from fictional elderly woman. She says men are an abnormal species. And continues, referring to female private parts as a pair of conchs and a clam she tells a girl to protect them from ‘unwanted’ activities of men!

Even today, both in the rural and urban areas, girls are told by ‘virtuous’ women not to question sexuality and desire but to accept when given at the right time. This is the way the society pursue the imposed difference between male and female identities and desires. Ultimately girls, mainly from rural areas, lack a great deal of knowledge on pregnancy and childbirth. If you simply ask a kind friendly nurse with long term experience in labour rooms of rural hospitals they will divulge the truth. Many young women, when pregnant, are not aware that under normal circumstances a child will be delivered though the vagina. This is the hidden truth. Yet, the virtuous rural society calls this ‘cultured’. 

Since the day she reaches puberty, it is emphasized that a girl should be protected until she is given away in marriage. What is this element that needs to be protected? From men, the very species brought up at a much distance from the female species. At the end, males and females that are united are nothing but uncontrollable studs and foolish cows. Where have we gone wrong? 

It is these misconceptions that lead to encourage boys to humiliate girls when they start showing signs of puberty at school and embarrass girls for their lifetime. If we in Sri Lanka are to enact a project like end period poverty as in Scotland it definitely should start at schools. In it is essential to discuss the social tragedy caused by the absence of sexual education as well. Until Sri Lankan society shed the tribal mentality women and girls will continue to suffer for that blood stain on their cloths and humiliation. 

- Radika Gunaratne

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