Menstrual Hygiene Day falls on 28th May each year since 2014 when it was initiated by the German-based NGO WASH United. The month was chosen because usually women have five days of periods and the date symbolizes the average duration of the monthly cycle. It aims to raise awareness among girls and women about their bodies which undergo important changes during the onset of puberty and at different stages of their lives so that they may tackle them with ease. It also makes efforts to target some myths related to female bodies.
However, to begin with, it is not only girls / women that undergo physical changes at various junctures of their lives but also boys / men and it is equally important to be aware of them. This is imperative for a healthy and fearless relationship with the body and to prevent various kinds of harms that we may invite due to lack of proper knowledge. After all, half-baked knowledge is as dangerous as ignorance, if not more.
Puberty – changes that occur in girls and boys:
Adolescence is an age which bridges the gap between childhood and adulthood. For girls, it lasts from 8 to 13 years while for boys it is from 10 and 15. During this phase, the body undergoes many changes along with emotional changes experienced by adolescents. This phase, together with the physical and emotional changes, is known as puberty. Each individual may experience the onset and completion of puberty at a slightly different age – there is no water tight compartment.
During puberty, girls develop breasts, hair in the armpit and the pubic area, experience widening of the hips, growth spurt in the form of sudden increase in height, and onset of menstruation. We will come to the last part soon.
For boys, puberty brings about the broadening of chests and shoulders, deepening of voice, appearance of facial, body and pubic hair, increase in the size of genitals, and growth spurt in the form of rapid increase in height for 2-3 years. They also develop the ability to ejaculate.
As stated above, together with these physical changes an adolescent experiences a variety of emotional changes as well. One becomes sensitive i.e.. experiences irritation or depression or gets uncomfortable about the bodily changes. There is a quest for a unique identity, different from friends of the same age group. New roles and responsibilities need to be taken up and one may have conflicting feelings about them. One may want to become independent while at the same time seeks support from parents. Since everything related to our future, from career to marriage, is uncertain we may have extreme mood swings, feeling confident and happy or sad and inadequate.
Such feelings are heightened by the fact that our bodies attain sexual maturity, that is, they become capable of reproduction. Together with this, an adolescent experiences the first feelings of sexual attraction.
Menstruation – meaning and duration:
A sign of sexual maturity of females is the onset of menstrual cycle at an age of 9 – 14. The cycle lasts for 21 – 35 days, varying for different individuals. The duration of period is usually between 2 to 7 days. Initially, it may take up to one year for the cycle to become regular.
During the menstrual cycle, a female ovary releases an egg cell which reaches the uterus through the fallopian tube. Meanwhile, the uterus develops a uterine line (called endometrium) made of tissue and blood vessels so that if the egg is fertilized by a male sperm, the foetus thus conceived may be borne by the uterus.
In the absence of a sperm, the egg is not fertilized and there is no pregnancy. Hence, the egg, along with the uterine lining, is shed from the body through the vagina in the form of blood. This process is called a period or menstruation.
The menstrual cycle begins all over again when a new egg starts to develop in the ovary.
There is a break in the menstrual cycle during pregnancy when the uterine lining nourishes the baby in the womb. After child-birth the menstrual cycle resumes, lasting till the age of 40 to 50. The process of ending of menstrual cycle at that age is called menopause.
When a girl begins to have her menstrual cycle, it is important for her to maintain menstrual hygiene which consists of preventing the clothes from getting soiled by menstrual fluid, maintaining cleanliness, eating a proper diet to compensate for the loss of nutrients in the form of blood, and having an active lifestyle to prevent stress. These measures are needed so as to be able to carry on with our day-to-day activities confidently, without facing an embarrassing situation.
In fact, since the exact time of first menstrual cycle is unpredictable, it is desirable that a girl should have prior knowledge about the same. This will help prevent the confusion that comes with discovering blood flowing from the vagina for the first time. It is an intensely private experience for a girl / woman and being prepared in advance helps prevent any unwanted predicament. Being vigilant about the menstrual cycle by keeping a track of the dates (marking it on the calendar if needed), keeping a sanitary napkin or tampon handy, analyzing the cervical mucus and staying healthy and confident go a long way in tackling with this normal human phenomenon.
A girl can make use of a disposable sanitary pad (absorbent pad worn between the vulva and the underwear), a reusable cloth pad (made of cloth which can be washed and reused), tampon (inserted in the vagina to absorb menstrual fluid) or menstrual cup (bell-shaped cup made of silicone inserted in the vagina to collect fluid)
In case one is using a disposable sanitary napkin or a tampon, a girl has to be vigilant enough to change it after 4-6 hours. Thereafter, it needs to be removed, wrapped inside a piece of paper and disposed off along with the garbage. Prolonged use of a tampon can cause a fatal illness called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Please do not flush a sanitary napkin or tampon in the toilet as it leads to clogging of the drainage system.
In case of reusable cloth pad, after removal, it has to be soaked in cold and mildly salty water (hot water leaves a permanent stain), washed and dried in the sun to kill the bacteria. A menstrual cup should be emptied after every 12 hours, cleaned with water and reused. It has to be washed with hot water after period gets over to be used the next month.
Taking a bath once a day, using clean undergarments, washing the genital area with water even after urination, keeping the area dry so as to prevent chafing, are some of the important steps to be taken to maintain hygiene during this time of the month. If there is muscular pain or cramps, take rest or medicines prescribed by a doctor.
Besides, it is important to know about certain myths related to the menstrual cycle.
Myths related to menstrual cycle need to be busted:
It is a myth that a menstruating woman is impure, dirty, sick or cursed because menstrual fluid is a harmless mixture of blood and tissue which was not used to nourish a baby in the womb. This should not prevent one from taking part in social events.
Many women are prohibited from taking a bath. It was all right to follow this practice when people bathed in the open in lakes or rivers leading to embarrassment. Today one usually bathes in a closed space and bathing is essential to keep oneself clean. In case of swimming, one can use a tampon or menstrual cup to prevent discharge into water.
It is a myth that a woman cannot be pregnant during menstruation, especially in case of short period. When a new egg remains in the fallopian tube (24 hours) and a sperm cell reaches there, it can get fertilized. This is an exception but needs to be watched out for. Also, if there is slight bleeding in the middle of the monthly cycle, it may be because of a possible pregnancy. A doctor needs to be consulted.
Loss of menstrual blood does not lead to anaemia because the amount is not more than 80 ml. It is easily compensated for by healthy diet. In case there is more bleeding, a doctor has to be consulted immediately.
The Logical Indian community is aware of the fact that menstruation is another natural physical phenomenon of a human body and should be regarded in the same way. It should not lead to shame or guilt and the best way to tackle with those feelings is to talk about it with a trusted adult – a family member, a teacher or a counsellor.