Periods are a normal part of life for teenage girls and women around the world and while every woman’s experience is different, one thing remains constant: it’s unpleasant, often uncomfortable and awkward to talk about.
The teenage girls living in the Rohingya camps are like any other girls. They get their periods once a month and struggle with cramps and mood swings and the mess.
But the cultural practices around menstruation are very different to what girls and women in the Western world are used to. A girl’s first period is a very significant event and heralds a big change in her day to day life.
When a Rohingya girl gets her first period, that is the end of her schooling. For the duration of her period, she is not permitted to leave the house. Her confinement and disappearance from public life signals to the neighbours that she has ‘become a woman’ and the community will treat her differently from that moment. While confined to home, the girls spend their time doing housework.
“For the first time we have our period we cannot talk to men. If a male relative comes to visit, the family tells him I am not home and I have to hide,” Nur Nahar, 15, says. “If a man is sitting on the mat, you cannot sit on it too. We must sit on old mats. We also cannot comb our hair.”
For these young women, it’s infinitely more difficult to manage their periods while living in the crowded, unsanitary and rudimentary camps in Cox’s Bazar. They are up against cultural norms that stigmatise periods and a constant shortage of pads or clean cloths, no medication for cramps and the conundrum of where to dispose of their used menstrual hygiene products.
A sharing economy exists here. Girls left without menstrual hygiene products will borrow from each other, but there are still shortages and they have to ration the few products they have between them.
Plan International staff working in Cox’s Bazar met with teenage girls in the Balukhali camp to get a better understanding of just what it’s like to have your period in place like this.
In Myanmar the girls would use pads or reusable cloths to manage their periods. The pads bought by their mothers for around 500 Burmese Kyat (40 cents USD). The tradition there is to bury the pad in a hole to dispose of it once used, usually very far away from the family house.
In the camps, the girls rely on pads and cloths to be distributed to them from aid organisations. Pads are inordinately expensive to buy – more than 20 times the price back home – and not readily available. When they first arrived, nothing was available, so many had to borrow from friends or just bleed into their underwear or use tissue or whatever was to hand.
“When we first arrived, they didn’t have anything. Sometimes we use cloths, other times it’s pads,” Nurankis, 15, explains.
In the camps, the biggest problem for these girls is a shortage of menstrual hygiene products. For now, girls share with one another. There is also no pain relief for cramps.
"For the first time we have our period we cannot talk to men. If a male relative comes to visit, the family tells him I am not home and I have to hide."
“We just hide it. Or go and do some housework until it goes away. You don’t usually tell anyone about the pain,” Rohana, 16, adds.
In a nearby tent, Jahida, who is 17, says she wishes she could access medication for her extreme period pain.
“I only get my period once every few months, but during my period I have horrible cramps. It’s so bad, it is completely intolerable, but there is no medication to help,” Jahida says.
“I want medicine to help with the pain because now all I can do is lie down and hope that it passes soon.”
Jahida does not leave her tent except to use the latrine early in the morning when there are fewer strangers around. Her mother helps her to manage her menstrual hygiene. She puts the used pad in paper and gives it to her mother, who takes it far from the tent, digs a hole and buries it.
Waste management in the camp is an ongoing issue. The girls often have no choice but to dispose pads in the latrines, a system that is not designed for these products. Others are still following the traditional practice of giving their used pad to their mother or an older female relative to bury, clearly not a good long-term or environmental option. Like many young women in the camp, she wishes that more menstrual hygiene kits were distributed. For now, Jahida has to pay for pads, which are an extraordinary expense for a family that has no income.
Almost directly across from Jahida’s tent, lives Shajeda, a 19-year-old with a nine-month old baby. Shajeda does not get her period thanks to a contraceptive injection she received from a clinic in Myanmar. She is worried, though, that her injection will wear off and then she will have to manage her periods and will also be at risk of another pregnancy.
“I have had injections so that I don’t have babies, but since I had my baby I’ve already had my period once,” she explains.
Plan International has listened to the stories of these women and is preparing 10,000 menstrual hygiene (or ‘dignity’) kits which will be distributed in the coming weeks. The kits include washable cloth as a sustainable alternative to pads that can be reused and won’t clog the latrine systems or cause environmental issues.
Jane Gardner is media and ambassador manager at Plan International Australia. Plan International works globally to tackle the devastating impact of period stigma on girls in developing nations by dispelling myths, educating girls on their rights and providing menstrual hygiene products. You can donate to their Rohingya Crisis appeal here.