Growing pains + COVID-19 = turmoil for Bangladeshi adolescents

Adolescents turn to trained peers for answers to sensitive questions on puberty, menstruation and anxiety

A girl taking session
08 March 2022

Sharmin Akhter Eti had plenty of questions about the changes she noticed since reaching puberty. But like many other teenagers in Bangladesh, she was too embarrassed to ask her mother about them.

So when she heard about a centre that could provide answers to her burning questions, she decided to try it out, bringing a friend with her for courage.

Sharmin’s experience of her local Adolescent Friendly Health Services (AFHS) centre proved to be so helpful that she has not stopped coming back.

Now the 18-year-old leads discussions on menstrual health and hygiene for other girls in her community, hoping to lessen the taboo around these issues and equip her peers with the information they need to make healthy decisions. She also provides information on protective measures against COVID-19.

A girl posing
Sharmin Akhter Eti stands for a portrait before leading a session focusing on menstrual health and hygiene for adolescent girls of her community.

Sessions are often held in the open air, on rooftops, with the girls spaced apart because of COVID-19. Whether it is concerns about mood swings, or the problems girls face if they are married and have children before 18, or the “normal” age to start getting periods, no topic is off limits. 

“Due to our social structure, talking openly about puberty-related issues is not so easy,” Sharmin says. “These sessions and spaces provide us with the comfort and care for us to speak freely and give us the proper knowledge regarding our queries too.”

The community sessions are just one element of the Adolescent Friendly Health Services, a wide-ranging programme supported by UNICEF to provide information on menstrual and reproductive health and puberty to adolescents aged 10-19 across Bangladesh.

Sharmin Akhter Eti leads a session on menstrual health and hygiene for adolescent girls in her community at a local library.

A time of turmoil and enormous change

Bangladesh is home to 32 million adolescents, who represent 21 per cent of the population. Adolescence marks a period of enormous, and often confusing, change. Many adolescents are grappling with surges in hormones combined with bodily changes. They are developing a sense of independence and exploring their identity as they begin to leave their childhood behind. 

For children in Bangladesh, this already turbulent time has coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic which continues to disrupt their lives, education and friendships. All of this is taking a toll on their mental health and well-being.

“It is vital that we invest in all aspects of adolescents’ health, including mental health, to ensure young people can thrive. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma attached to issues like depression and anxiety. But we can overcome it by taking the experiences of adolescents seriously and promoting a better understanding of what concerns them,” says Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, Health Specialist at UNICEF in Bangladesh.

Through the AFHS programme, adolescents who are struggling to cope can also receive online and telephone counselling.

Shamima Akhter, who helps to manage the counselling helpline, recorded a sharp increase in the number of adolescents, especially girls, reporting violence and abuse in their homes during the pandemic. “Either they are being abused, or they are afraid of getting infected and losing their family members,” she adds.

Recognizing the importance of parents and teachers in tackling adolescent mental health, the AFHS programme provides online sessions for them to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on children’s well-being. Many parents do not realize that children can feel depressed when education is interrupted, loved ones fall sick with the virus and restrictions prevent them from seeing friends and relatives. 

“Most adolescents say they feel very lonely and helpless in this situation. Their parents seem to be unaware of their emotional state. Through our online sessions, parents learn how they can help their children overcome the emotional challenges created by this outbreak,” Shamima said.

Keeping in touch and staying active

Knowing they can receive support even during the pandemic has helped many adolescents to deal with their anxiety, fear and stress.

Sixteen-year-old Jhorna Akhter remembers getting a phone call from her AFHS centre one day, asking if she was okay. Having a trusted mental health expert to talk to made her feel less lonely and scared.

 “They gave me COVID-19 related information, told me about how to stay safe and that gave me courage to deal with the situation,” Jhorna said.

Now she knows exactly what to do when she is worried or bored: arts and crafts.

“They asked me to spend more time with my parents, do household chores and play board games with my family. Now I don’t feel lonely anymore,” she adds.