Menstruation is not a dirty word. But for girls like Valerie, 13, the word “menstruation” is spoken only in hushed whispers between her and her grandmother.
“When I had my first period, I was scared. I didn’t want to move around and I just stayed in the house,” Valerie said.
Valerie attends class in one of the urban primary schools in Port Moresby. Valerie likes writing stories and gets high points in English, which is her favourite subject. She dreams of becoming a lawyer someday. Valerie’s mother passed away when she was only 10 years old. She now lives with her grandmother and other relatives after her father remarried.
Despite being a normal biological process, menstruation remains to be a taboo subject in Papua New Guinea and is not talked about openly especially in the presence of boys and men. This contributes to the poor or lack of basic knowledge of menstruation and how to manage it among women and girls. Unprepared for their first menstrual bleeding, girls like Valerie rely on older female relatives, who are not knowledgeable themselves, for support and advice. Moreover, poor access to affordable sanitary hygiene products compels some girls to use homemade materials, which are often ineffective in preventing leakages.
“People make fun and gossip about girls who get stains on their skirts,” she said. She recalled a time when one of her classmates had her period at school. “All the students, especially the boys, were pointing at her and laughing. At that time, I didn’t have my period yet, so I didn’t think much of it. But when I had it, it frightened me, “she said.
Traditional beliefs and practices, which view menstruation as “dirty” or people who have it as “sick”, often impose unnecessary restrictions to women and girls such as not going to work or school, not preparing or touching food, etc. Such restrictions also impact on women’s and girl’s self-esteem and well-being as they can view themselves as “dirty” or “sick” each time they have their period.
“When I have my period, I’m not allowed to prepare food. So I let my grandmother know when I’m menstruating. I don’t play when I have it, and I just sit down and watch,” Valerie said.
“My cousin, she had it (menstruation) for the first time, and for the whole month she stayed at home,” Valerie recalled. “Her parents leaned on the customs side, so my cousin was taught not to move around and so she stayed only in her bedroom,” she said. Valerie said that missing class for a month affected her cousin’s grades. “She was a high performing student but her marks went down,” Valerie said.
In September 2017, a team of health promotion staff from World Vision visited Valerie’s school and conducted a workshop to orient girls and boys, including their teachers, about menstruation and how to take care of their body and stay healthy. The sessions separated the boys from the girls so that girls feel comfortable sharing their experiences without fear of being teased by the boys.
“When World Vision did the awareness, they told us it was okay to share our thoughts and feelings. So most of us, we were coming out and sharing our experiences, our problems and what we did the first time we had our period,” Valerie said.
“My grandma, she taught me a bit about menstruation. But I learned a lot from World Vision. I learned the reason why we have our period, how to wash my hands, keep healthy, and how to dispose of my rubbish,’ she shared.
Valerie’s teacher and deputy head mistress, Ms Evelyn Kurubai, said that the orientation facilitated by World Vision was very helpful. “The students and I learned the importance of throwing away rubbish properly and using toilets and bins properly,” she said. “I learned new things during the orientation. This is very helpful, especially for the girls who can then advise fellow students and younger siblings about hygiene and sanitation,” she added.
“We have more work to do with the schools, the communities and the government to ensure that women and girls receive adequate guidance on menstrual hygiene management, including safe and proper personal hygiene. We need to work together to figure out effective ways to ensure that there is adequate supply of water and rubbish bins, and that girls have privacy for changing and cleaning, ” said Michael Koini, World Vision Project Manager for the "Water and Healthy Life Project in Hanuabada Village" supported by the New Zealand Government.
For Valerie and her friends, simple knowledge about menstruation and good hygiene practices has gradually changed their attitude about menstruation. “After the awareness activity, I’ve gained more confidence. Now I can tell the other girls who haven’t had their period not to feel afraid about getting their period. It’s good for the boys to learn about it too so when they’re grown and have daughters they can teach them what to do,” she beamed.
Interview by Paula Kari (Senior Communications Officer) and photo by Steven Doe (Multimedia Communications Officer)