Gathered around a square table in a crowded conference room in the capital city of Bhutan sat students, parents and prominent members of the community preparing to discuss a topic usually reserved for hushed tones and awkward pauses.
MyBhutan, a social enterprise that will be launching Bhutan’s first one-stop travel portal later this month and RENEW, a local Bhutanese organization “dedicated to the relief and empowerment of disadvantaged women and adolescent girls” came together to add Bhutan to the long list of countries joining the #LetsFaceItPeriod Campaign. In support of the campaign, which aims to start an open dialogue on menstruation to de-stigmatize the topic globally, RENEW and MyBhutan called upon the local community to join the flow of conversation at a roundtable discussion on Friday, September 11.
After formalities and greetings from MyBhutan’s founder, Matt DeSantis, Madam Dolma, the principal of Rinchen Kuenphen Primary School and moderator of the event, opened the floor for discussions. After some uncomfortable shuffling, Aum Damchoe from the Bhutan Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAOWE) broke the silence.
“We can’t speak out; I don’t understand why we fear speaking up.”
With that, the metaphorical bloody dam was broken and the crowd began to talk. About periods.
The talks touched on various subjects. Ranging from what menstruation is to how parents should approach their children when discussing periods. One man questioned the young girls on why they felt uncomfortable discussing their periods with their fathers.
“Mothers go through it so they understand it better,” responded one student. Her peers nodded in agreement and the visibly hurt father said, “We fathers do know about menstruation…we would appreciate it if girls came up and talked to us openly.”
Without prompting from the campaign organizers, this conversation organically arose and touched on the core of the campaign – the uneasiness women and girls feel about discussing their periods. It was a sentiment held by both young and old and was even felt by men, especially caring fathers who are eager to join the conversation.
But this father may seem like a minority to most. Many older attendees agreed that their parents, especially fathers, were not so eager to discuss their monthly visitor. One woman remembered how unprepared she was for her first period because her parents simply didn’t tell her what to expect. “It was a very uncomfortable topic to talk about…we didn’t have internet access so we couldn’t educate ourselves. I had to rely on my cousins, sisters and girls my own age to exchange information.”
This lack of information is inline with WHO-UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Programme’s findings in South Asia that “1 out of 3 schoolgirls are not aware of menstruation prior to menarche and only 2.5% know that menstrual blood comes from the uterus.” This complete ignorance of a natural biological process lends itself to period shame; causing young women to forego school and other opportunities vital to their development. BAOWE’s representative equates these missed opportunities as a major factor in Bhutan’s high rate of unemployment, especially among women. To combat this, BAOWE is working with the Ministry of Education to educate women on proper menstrual health and reusable sanitation towels which BAOWE is attempting to make available for all Bhutanese women.
Go Bhutan, another organization present, has a similar mission. They wish to provide greater access to sanitary napkins by producing low cost (30-40% less) napkins in vending machines open 24/7.
Recognizing the environmental and logistical problems associated with disposing sanitary napkins, Go Bhutan, has also invested in the first of its kind, sanitary napkin destroyer which will convert the napkins to sterile ash in a matter of seconds.
Go Bhutan has also created a social enterprise called Her Health Hygiene (HHH) to pursue a more holistic approach for girls to manage their periods and become agents of change within their communities.
All of these organizations were passionate during the conversations and thrilled to have an event that was solely for the purposes they had been championing for so long.
At the conclusion of the event attendees divided into groups of students, panelists and parents to create action plans for the issues discussed. “Girls’ Clubs” and “Mothers’ Clubs” were created and attendees volunteered for RENEW’s visits to rural areas to educate women on proper health practices.
During final addresses, the attendees expressed their eagerness to continue the work sparked with this event. The conversation has started and now it is up to those present to continue breaking menstruation taboos and sharing it with the rest of the Bhutanese community.
- written by Sarah Cahlan