KUALA LUMPUR, May 25 – Anja Juliah Abu Bakar said she first heard about period poverty back in 2012 when she was approached by a group of missionaries in rural Sabah, but she didn’t take their concerns seriously at first.
“I thought girls were just making excuses when they skipped school five to seven days a month, because pads are cheap. You can get it for RM3 to RM4,” said the founder of Athena Empowers, which manufactures feminine hygiene products.
“But back then I was ignorant I guess, because I didn’t realise the prices in Sabah and Sarawak were higher than in the city.”
She then found out that the girls there were using coconut husks stuffed in socks as an alternative to sanitary pads. “So we are in the 21st century but we have girls who use coconut husks as pads in Sabah,” said Anja at a panel discussion on period poverty organised by Kotex last May 16.
“And I also encountered the same in rural Sarawak. The girls had to be creative just so they could go to school.”
Anja, whose organisation also runs community development programmes, said based on her observations, girls, especially those aged 10 to 14, need a safe space to attend to their menstrual needs.
For example, she said schools should have at least one dry cubicle in their toilets or even a separate room for students to change their sanitary pads comfortably. “Providing a conducive environment for girls will help them feel safe and supported.”
Stigma And Shame In Secondary School
Although she left school a while back, recent University of Malaya graduate, Alma Artin Vaqari still recalls the shame of having periods back when she was a secondary school student. The stigma was so prevalent that students had to resort to using code words like cuti (holiday) to refer to periods.
“We were afraid to use words like period or haid (menstruation) because it was shameful and quite embarrassing to bring up topics like that in front of everyone,” said Alma.
“If somebody had a stain, we would whisper to each other to ask for emergency pads and if we were to pass these emergency pads, we would hide them between our textbooks or in pouches.”
There was even a clandestine way of taking sanitary pads out of backpacks to avoid embarrassment. “You would make sure you take it out very slowly so people cannot hear the sound of the plastic. Whenever you have male classmates around, you just didn’t want them to know you were taking a pad out of your bag.”
An Embarrassing Incident
While people were more “open-minded” in university, Alma was shocked to learn about an incident at a gathering; a woman had stained her clothes because she was having her period but people were too embarrassed to tell her about it.
“This gathering was of people within the age of those in university, so 18 to 23-year-olds. And there was one person very obviously leaking from behind. But no one wanted to approach her, until eventually someone handed her a scarf and an emergency pad and told her she was staining.
“So, from here it’s obvious that even as we grow into adults, there is still this buat tak tahu (pretend not to know) attitude because period is stigmatised and is considered shameful,” Alma said.
“It’s important for us to recognise that these are issues that have been happening for a very long time and it’s important for us to initiate conversation and empower girls so that they feel more comfortable in their bodies.”
Children Take Cues From Adults
Children pick up cues from the adults around them so if family members discuss the topic surreptitiously, children may grow up thinking that menstruation is not a subject that should be discussed in the open, according to Rajalakshmi Ganesan, programme director for Bachelor of Psychology programme, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Taylor’s University.
“She (the child) learns that ‘oh, it’s something I shouldn’t talk about. I should keep it a secret, I shouldn’t even let people know I’m having my period.’ So this is stigmatisation. Why this happens is misinformation and so we don’t have enough information,” said Rajalaksmi.
“Maybe the mother herself doesn’t have enough information to share or doesn’t know how to share it because her mother did not share it with her. The cycle just goes on.”
Educate Boys About Menstruation
To eliminate the stigma, awareness and information have to be provided from a young age, Rajalakshmi said, adding that knowledge should also be imparted to boys.
“I remember when I was in secondary school and there was a taklimat (briefing) for girls on how to care for yourself during the menstrual cycle. They separated the class, all the girls had to go for the taklimat while the boys had some other activity to do.
“But the boys knew what the taklimat was all about and when the girls returned to class, they got teased,” she recalled. “So why not educate the boys as well?”
Anja agreed that education about menstruation should not be limited to girls. “I remember when we did programmes, if it’s after school, the teachers also invite the mothers and this is where there is an exchange of knowledge.”
“When they (mothers) share what they know, teachers respond by saying we should have more of such programmes,” Anja said, adding that boys should also be included in these programmes.
Not Just Access to Pads
“Period poverty is not just about access to pads,” said Arvind Iyer, marketing director of Kimberly-Clark Malaysia. “It’s also a system change that requires yes, access to pads, but also education about menstrual health management and reproductive health.
“Raising awareness on that will lead to a reduction in period poverty because there is a conscious change of habit and a willingness to try the right products, which are manufactured for menstruation.”
After the event, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Nancy Shukri told reporters that while menstruation has not traditionally been discussed openly in Malaysian society, this norm now has to be challenged.
“It (period) is a natural occurrence and should be accepted as such by the larger society including boys and men,” said the minister.
“We have to normalise this topic in Malaysia to the extent that when someone needs a pad, they don’t have to ask for it in a whisper.”