Destigmatising disability and menstruation
A youth with disability shares the need to make menstrual hygiene management inclusive
For someone who uses her feet as hands, Tshering Lham is not deterred by the challenges of managing her menstruation.
A student of Draktsho vocational training center, a CSO for children and youth with disabilities in Thimphu for last four years, Tshering, 21, uses her feet to sketch, paint and do household chores as well as change her sanitary napkins.
“I have to sit on the floor to use my feet to change the sanitary pads,” she says. “So, when I get my period, I stay home as I can change the sanitary napkin in my room.”
Tshering lived with her parents in Trashigang where she also attended school until grade seven. After her sister learnt about Draktsho on TV, she came to Thimphu.
“Some of my friends also stay home during their menstruation. For girls with disabilities, we need toilets that are comfortable to use and that have water and soap,” says Tshering.
Tshering has the support and care from her family. Her sister helps her get dressed and walks her to the institute every morning. The sisters believe that walking for about 30-40 minutes every morning and evening would help with Tshering’s mobility.
“She does not like to take the bus but when we walk to the center, people do make fun of her,” her sister Sonam Zangmo says. “She knows when her period is due and prepares her undergarments by lining them with the pads.”
Sonam runs a restaurant business with her friends and when she is away at work, Tshering helps take care of her sister’s children. “She also cooks food for them.”
On weekends, Tshering visits temples and sometimes goes on a picnic with her family. Her sister insists that it is important for children with disabilities to socialize and learn.
“We see some parents are embarrassed of their children with disabilities and keep them hidden or locked at homes. But we must take them out with us so that our children can learn and other parents of children with disabilities would also understand that they are not alone,” says Sonam. “Even when I am out with my sister, people comment on her disability. She gets hurt but doesn’t tell us and cries quietly at home. And then, she refuses to go out next time.”
Sonam says she consoles her sister whenever the remarks hurt her. “I tell her that instead of being sad, she should be proud because she is doing with her feet what we are doing with our hands,” she says. “That cheers her up.”
Tshering is well aware about the stigma associated with disabilities and menstruation in the society. She is as familiar with girls and women with disabilities facing a double stigma due to both social norms around menstruation and having a disability.
“If we have stained our clothes during menstruation, we are made fun of. Some play with our emotions and because of our disabilities, people don’t consider us important or worthy,” she says. “Instead of being ashamed of us, parents should enroll us in schools and institutions to help us become independent.”
Awareness and advocacy, she says, to destigmatize disabilities and menstruation must be continued and accelerated. This menstrual hygiene day, Red Dot Bhutan and partners are focusing their advocacy on Equity for Red Hygiene to ensure girls and women with disabilities are able to manage their menstruation safely and with dignity.
“Menstruation and disabilities are not something to be embarrassed about,” says Tshering. “ We need to focus on what we can do despite our disabilities. We need to understand that menstruation is a natural cleansing process.”
Tshering wants to be a painter after she completes her training at the center and her sketches are already winning her prizes, says her traditional art teacher Kuenga Wangmo.
“She has won cash prizes in art competitions, and she has grown to become a confident young woman,” says Kuenga Wangmo. “When she first came here, she was shy and couldn’t draw. But she is hardworking and now she is confident with her skills. She also organizes events and helps me monitor the class.”
Tshering is happy to have a center for children and youth with disabilities, a place where students care and support each other. Her inspiration is His Majesty. “His Majesty cares more for the others than himself,” says Tshering. “And because His Majesty cares for all of us, I want children and youth like me, with disabilities, to focus on what we can do and not on what we cannot.”