Many adolescent girls are getting their periods earlier than the previous generations
Pics: Gopen Rai
TALKING PERIODS: Students from Grades 7 to 10 look out of a window in Champidevi Higher Secondary School, Lalitpur .
Three years ago at Dasain, Suprina’s entire family had gathered for the festival when she got her period for the first time.
The 11-year-old fourth-grader had heard whispers about “that time of the month” from female family members, but had not expected it so soon and did not really know what to do. For the next 11 days she was confined to a room and was not allowed to look at male family members or perform any of the Dasain rituals. At school she was one of the first in her class to have her period, so she did not have any friends to ask about it. Her textbooks had no answers either.
Renu was in Grade 5 when she got her first period when she was 11, and was ill in bed when it started. “I thought there was something terribly wrong with me, I went to the bathroom and cried my eyes out,” she recalls.
Now 23 years old, Renu says her mother comforted her and told her what was happening. “I had heard about it before, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon,” she says. “If someone had told me exactly what to expect, it wouldn’t have been so traumatic.”
Notwithstanding taboos about talking openly about it and stigmatisation of girls reaching puberty, and the superstitions that lead to the ostracisation of young women, more and more girls in Nepal are getting their first period at an increasingly younger age. Neither families or society, nor the school system is prepared for this change.
“I have seen girls as young as nine start menstruating,” says Kathmandu-based gynaecologist Kundu Yangzom. A study in western Nepal six years ago found the average age of menarche among those surveyed to be about 12.8 years, while their mothers got their first periods when they were nearly 14.8 years old. The study also found girls in private schools, and those with more siblings, are reaching puberty earlier.
Precocious puberty is a worldwide problem, which scientists think may be caused by obesity in young girls, the spread of chemicals called endocrine disruptors found in pesticides and other chemicals in the foodchain, and even the stress induced in young daughters by broken families.
In Nepal, the decreasing age of menarche has exacerbated existing social problems. Because of cultural and social taboos associated with menstruation, girls are often caught off-guard when they have their periods for the first time. In most families, it is not a subject that is discussed openly, and in school the topic does not come up in the curriculum until Grade 6.
“By the time the word menstruation was mentioned in our textbook, many of my friends and I had been having our periods for two years,” recalls Suprina, who is now in Grade 7 at Champidevi Higher Secondary School. “Even the textbook wasn’t of much help, it didn’t have any explanation.”
Bina Pandey, who teaches Environment, Population and Health (EPH) in Grades 6 to 8 at Mahalaxmi Lower Secondary School in Nakhipot, says that although information on sexual and reproductive health has been added to the course, the information on menstruation is still very skimpy.
“Menstruation is mentioned a few times in the Grade 6-7 curriculum but it isn’t until Grade 8 that students get to learn more. Even then it is only about the biology of menstruation,” Pandey explains.
Grade 8 students from Shree Mahalaxmi Lower Secondary School, Nakhipot during a discussion on menstruation.
Hema Pant, who also teaches EPH in Grades 9 and 10 at Champidevi Higher Secondary School, says: “The textbook may say use sanitary napkins when you have periods but it doesn’t mention how frequently it should be changed.”
Upama Adhikary Tamang at Wateraid says: “Menstruation should be included as a separate chapter in the school curriculum.” The popular youth talk program on radio Sathi Sanga Manka Kura gets many queries from young women in the districts who want to know more about menstruation.
Binita Shrestha, who hosted the program 10 years ago, says: “In those days the questions related to basic information during the first period, but now it is more about health, hygiene and social stigma.”
At schools, students say they want more detailed and practical information on menstruation to be included in earlier grades so that girls can be better informed about upcoming changes in their bodies.
“It will be better to have information like whether to use sanitary pads, how often they should be changed, and about infections,” says Laxmi, 14. “Since not everyone has access to the Internet and not every parent is open about these issues, it would be helpful for us if we can learn from the textbooks.”
Another Grade 8 student, Kamala, says one problem is to convince family members to break away from superstitious rituals: “If the textbooks say that menstruation is a natural process and there is nothing to be ashamed of, maybe more girls will talk about it openly and can convince their parents to do so too. Right now the textbooks are not very practical.”
Names have been changed
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