Even though menstruation is a totally natural, biological process, it’s a taboo topic around the world. For some that means trying to conceal tampons on the way to the bathroom, but for others it means staying home from school, eating alone, and being forced into isolation.
Social stigmas attached to periods combined with lack of access to clean water and sanitation makes dealing with periods especially challenging. Girls need a safe, private place to practice good menstrual hygiene, but menstrual taboo inhibits discussions about their needs, often meaning those needs go unaddressed. Without proper sanitation conditions and a basic understanding of health, girls are prevented by their communities from living up to their full potential.
In Sindhuli, a rural district of Nepal, menstruating girls are seen as unclean and are made to abide by many superstitious restrictions. During their periods, the girls are often excluded from interacting with family and prevented from going about normal daily activities. WaterAid Nepal found that 53 percent of Nepalese girls miss school during their periods because their school bathrooms lack privacy, clean water, and hygienic disposal systems for their sanitary amenities. These girls often feel dirty and ashamed when on their periods, and many of the girls are embarrassed to go to school for fear of being teased. They are left feeling silenced and alone during their period.
Armed with cameras, WaterAid and Nepal Water for Health (NEWAH) held a workshop in Sinduli to give the girls a platform to share. Seven teenage girls were given cameras to document their lives while menstruating under one united goal: to spark a discussion about period taboos.
Here are the Nepali girls’ stories of the superstitions they endured and how they came to discover that their periods don’t have to hold them back.
“This is my mother and sister in the picture. Here, my mother is feeding my sister with so much of love. Mother loves me very much as well. However, during my menstruation cycle I am kept separately and have to eat at distance. When nobody touches me, I feel unloved. We need lots of love and support during our menstruation but, when I am separated and treated like an untouchable I feel no love from my mother and father and I feel only hatred. I feel sad being treated that way.”
This photo was taken by a girl named Bandana, whose conservative family believes menstruating girls should not touch or look at male family members. While on her period, she is also forbidden to go into the vegetable garden as her family believes her touch will kill the plants and vegetables. She eats her meals separately from her family when having her period.
“The scene in the photo is in front of my house. My aunt is preparing to wash clothes. In our society there are beliefs that during menstruation if we wash our clothes outside, it will affect our menstruation health and it will cause bad omen. This is the reason the girls are not allowed to wash their pads openly. But in my home, there is no such restrictions. I believe that washing pads properly with soap and even press them after drying is very essential. Like me and my family, if other adolescent girls of my age understands this, they could live a healthy and hygienic life.”
“This is a small irrigation canal in our village. It flows water regularly. In this irrigation canal, people wash their dishes and also wash clothes and menstruation pads. People also throw rubbish in this canal. This water flows to down village and they also use this water for taking bath and washing vegetables. While using water in this way, the water may look clear but it could cause many water borne diseases.”
The photos above were taken by Bisheshta. Bisheshta comes from a well educated family who hold her to fewer major restrictions during her period. Still, they believe in some pervasive cultural practices like not allowing menstruating girls to enter kitchens or touch male family members. Bisheshta is also does not eat with her family during her period and cannot visit temples.
“This is the picture of the stream where I bath and clean my pads. In this picture there is a stack of pads that I use and I clicked this picture sometime before I started washing them. During our menstrual cycle it’s very embarrassing for us to wash our used pads out in the public place hence, we find nearest corners and isolated streams to clean our pads and wash ourselves.”
“This is the picture of my kitchen. When I clicked this picture my mother had just finished cooking ‘sel-roti’ (Traditional doughnut lookalike bread prepared from rice flour). I really love ‘sel-roti’. But during our menstruation we are not allowed to enter inside kitchen. We are also not allowed to touch belongings of kitchen, materials, edibles and utensils as well. I am not allowed to eat ‘sel-roti’ as well. Other days when I am not in the cycle I work and eat in the same kitchen however, eating separately during menstruation makes me sad. I feel casted out, as if a stranger and not the part of the family.”
Manisha, who took these photos, is quite restricted by her family during her period. Like many other girls, she was removed from her home for the duration of her first menstruation. For that period of time she was confined to a room for 22 days. Because she was not allowed to look at the sun during her period she bathed in streams before sunrise. During her period she is not allowed to eat or touch certain fruits or drink milk.
“This is one of our grandmothers from our neighborhood. She is making plates from the leaves. And I clicked this picture while she was stitching individual leaves to make a plate out of it. During menstruation we are not allowed to touch these kinds of plates. Apart from not touching them, we are not allowed to even touch the leaves or go near to women who are stitching them. Menstruation is a natural process I don’t feel nice of such restrictions in our society. I think what matters most- is to remain clean and healthy during this time.”
“I had gone to collect grass and firewood when I had my first menstruation. I clicked this picture to recollect that particular memory of mine. I never knew menstruation was about bleeding. So, when I started bleeding for the first time I got very scared and terrified. There was no one to help me out, I didn’t know how to use pads and I had hard time coping up with the changes I had within me. That’s why I try to help younger girls who seem as confused as me when I had my first menstruation. I tell them to focus on cleanliness and hygiene.”
“This is the picture where I usually hang my clothes to let it dry out in the sun after I have washed them. I hang my pads here itself. Most of my friends hang their pads into places where it’s dark, to hide it from others; most of them hide it by drying it beneath other clothes. But, if we hide the pads from the sunlight just because others will see them it will risk the germs from moist pads. If we are not careful about the pads we use, that might even lead to cancer as well.”
Rabina comes from a family who has placed on her nearly all of the restrictions the girls have mentioned. But Rabina is vocal about her opinions. Though she is not allowed to enter kitchen and touch food related items while on her period she happily admits that secretly touches all of them when no one is around. She was told not to touch plants and flowers when menstruating, but decided to plant a flower during her cycle anyway and reported that it is blooming beautifully.