There’s now a new openness towards menstruation and awareness of it as a natural process, says associate professor Dr Harlina Halizah Siraj, an obstetrician and gynaecologist.
Dr Harlina says misconceptions about menstruation are gradually disappearing as women now have the knowledge to question many traditional claims. Practices such as avoiding the consumption of coconut water or pineapple during menstruation are not supported by clinical evidence. Still more damaging is the belief that a woman’s monthly bleeding is a divine punishment or curse.
Dr Harlina says that because menstruation involves blood and a woman’s private part, confusing and frightening messages were, for centuries, passed down to women, causing unnecessary stress and anxiety. But whatever people’s views on menstruation, a girl’s first period is a significant event. It reflects not just her transition to adulthood but the fact that she’s healthy and normal.
In traditional Indian communities where women married in their teens, a girl’s first period was an important event, marked in a celebratory coming-of-age ceremony attended by family and friends. Such ceremonies were a way to indirectly announce that the girl was ready for marriage. Today, few girls undergo such procedures although in some families, these rituals are performed a few days before an adult daughter gets married.
While girls today may be spared these traditional practices, they still need a guiding hand through menstruation and mothers play a crucial role. The issue of when to raise the subject depends on when a girl starts asking questions. Dr Harlina says that in some families, this can happen early, especially if there are older girls in the home and the child sees boxes of sanitary pads.
Mothers should use this opportunity to address the issue and stress that menstruation is not a burden but a natural process.
“It would be great if mothers could take a day off when their daughters get their first period and use that time as a bonding session to talk about what’s happening and allow the girl to voice her anxieties.”
This crucial moment can also be used to dispel any misconceptions the young girl may have about her period and educate her about everything, from personal hygiene and pre-menstrual syndrome to selecting a sanitary pad, the proper way to dispose pads and changes in the body.
Girls should also be encouraged to keep a “menstrual diary” so that they will know when their cycle begins and ends and note if there is any change in the cycle.
“This is important knowledge for every woman because how her cycle works is an indication of her overall health.”
In school, Dr Harlina says girls should be able to turn to female teachers with questions about menstruation but teachers, must be equipped to pass on accurate information.
For girls in Standard Four, Five or Six, learning about menstruation and personal health can make them better prepared and more confident to face changes in their bodies.
“The important thing is that girls should have ample opportunities to ask questions, whether at home or at school, and get right answers.”
The issue of early menstruation is also something parents today need to be aware of. Dr Harlina says most girls start menstruating when their body weight reaches 42kg or 45kg. In the past, girls reached this weight in their early teens so menstruation started at 13-15 years.
Today, with availability of good food and a sedentary lifestyle, girls reach this weight much earlier and may start menstruating even at 9 or 10.
Unfortunately, this can pose a challenge to some parents as the child’s mind lacks the ability to cope with these changes.
“What’s important is that parents must remember that menstruation is never the same for every girl and that every child needs guidance to face it in a positive manner.”
by Meera Murugesan.