Choki Wangmo 

A 94-year-old great-grandmother always ends her prayers with “May I get a pholue in the next lives.” For the past many decades, she made countless prayers to be reborn a male, whose life, she believes, is nine times “better” than that of a woman. A man’s body is clean and pure, unlike the girls who menstruate every month.

For Zangmo, her first period was a nightmare. Her body suddenly changed and no one ever explained to her what menstruation was.   

 She thought she was bleeding to death. She was confused and was in pain. 

The premenstrual syndrome, the physical and emotional affliction she experienced before her menstrual period made her fidgety.

Now she hears that she is impure; she can’t enter the altar room and visit sacred sites and monasteries during her menstruation. She was told that her “impurity” will evoke the wrath of the local deities, bringing in misfortunes and disasters.

Her friend, Deki, whose period soaked through her kira one time in school refused to go to school for a few days after she was ridiculed. She did not want to be teased or humiliated.

Menstruation, a blood that is as same as any other body fluid is considered a taboo in many cultures across the world. Common period taboos include the idea that women are impure, dirty, or sinful while they’re menstruating. Period taboos prevent girls from managing their periods with dignity.

In major world religions, periods often involve shame or censure that has deep roots in patriarchal ideology inherent in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and later adopted in Islam.

In Nepal and India, women do not have the right to touch food or crops because they could cause bad luck to their families and communities. Chhaupadi, a period taboo practised among the Hindu communities in Nepal and India require a menstruating girl or a woman to live outside of their homes. It is believed that menstruating women are unclean and they bring bad luck to a community. Without access to clean facilities, such experiences could have detrimental effects on women and girls.

For example, a woman and her two children were found dead in a hut in Nepal while the mother was on menstrual exile.

Girls in Bolivia are told that period blood can cause serious illnesses, such as cancer, in other people. Some women are discouraged from touching or washing their genitals during their periods to eliminate the possibility that they might contaminate the water of a communal bathing area.

In Bhutan, menstruating girls and women are restricted from visiting lakes and monasteries. The underlying basis for this myth is also the cultural beliefs of impurity associated with menstruation. For instance, it is widely considered that a woman lost her life a few years ago after she visited Buli Tsho in Zhemgang while on her period. Menstruating women and girls do not visit the lake.

It is believed that menstruating women are unclean and the food they prepare or handle can get contaminated. In the southern Bhutanese culture, a menstruating woman cannot enter the kitchen as it is believed that the body emits some specific smell, which turns preserved food bad.

Such experiences are an extra burden for women or girls living with disabilities. Lhamo from Kilkhorthang in Tsirang has a 27-year-old daughter with a physical disability, speech, and communication disorders. Every month, the mother, who also has to look after three other children, has to provide special care to her  daughter. “The blood flows with urine and it is really hard to maintain hygiene.”

“We cannot buy adult diapers,” said the mother. Good quality sanitary pads, she said, are expensive for the family.

The United Nations Population Fund says that period poverty perpetuates the idea that girls are less desirable, valuable, or capable than boys.

“Her disability is looked down upon and she struggles with periods. In general, menstruating women are not favoured in any social situations,” Lhamo said.

A Khenpo of Dangchu Dendrup Choeling Goenzin Dratsang, Yonten Gyeltshen, said that according to the Hinayana vehicle of Buddhism, period is considered impure and menstruating women and girls are not allowed in the altar rooms or kitchens.

He said that as the deities of lakes and mountains are worldly gods, who like humans have “feelings of cleanliness and dirtiness”, they get angry when a menstruating woman, considered impure, visits their area. “Tshomens are the cleanest gods. This could be the reason why people say a menstruating woman cannot visit lakes,” the Khenpo said.

However, he said that the period is considered the cleanest form of offering in the Mahayana and the Vajrayana forms of Buddhism. “The sperm (khuwa) from male and blood (ragta) from female deities are visualised as inner, outer, and secret offerings, through which the practitioner attains liberation.”

There is hope for menstruating girls and women living in the towns of Bhutan. Women and girls in rural pockets of the country, however, continue to face the period stigma.

Many organisations in the country have started working towards addressing the menstrual taboos.

UNICEF’s WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) initiative in some schools has assured regular water supply and changing rooms, and easy access to sanitary supplies for the female students to be comfortable with their menstruation process and not skip school fearing shame or stigma.

The Royal Patron of Red Dot Bhutan, Her Royal Highness Princess Eeuphelma Choden Wangchuck, last Menstrual Hygiene Day (MHD) encouraged boys and men to create a period-friendly environment in all schools across Bhutan for all girls and women to have access to inclusive toilets.

Menstrual Hygiene Management for the last seven years has been calling for more action and investment in menstrual hygiene, with a special focus on the menstrual management needs of girls and women with disabilities in schools and institutions.

Some organisations like the Netherlands Development Organisation and Bhutan Nuns Foundation have targeted menstrual hygiene issues of young girls and women in monastic institutions.

This MHD (May 28), the world strives towards making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030.

As part of advocating Equity for Red Hygiene, Kuensel will publish a series of stories on Menstrual Health Management in partnership with MoESD and partners.