Menstruation in The Time of Emergencies

UNICEF is working closely with the Indonesian government and the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI) to scale up Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) interventions after the earthquakes in Lombok, Indonesia.

Lely Djuhari
Teacher in SMPN 1 Tanjung Lombok
01 February 2019

The day a 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck the island of Lombok, 14-year-old Kadek Ariasti Widhiari was having her period. In what she describes as one of the hardest months of her life, she and her family were forced to leave everything behind and find refuge in a temporary shelter.

“All the while, I was trying to cope with the menstrual discomfort,” she says. “I was scared, helpless, in pain.”

Kadek is speaking at a focus group discussion held at her school. The discussion is part of UNICEF’s initiative to empower adolescent girls and boys with knowledge about menstrual hygiene management and puberty.

“At the shelter, I couldn’t get sanitary napkins,” Kadek continues. “None of the shops was open after the earthquake.”

But she was undeterred, she tells the group. She tore up her baby sister’s diapers and used them instead.

There are many girls in the focus group who have similar stories. One of them had her mother teach her how to wear cloth sanitary napkins, which have gone out of style in Lombok for many years.

Another girl recounts the dilemma of washing off blood from her soiled napkins using precious drinking water as tap water was unavailable. Washing napkins before wrapping and discarding them is a common practice in Indonesia—it is meant as a gesture of respect.


Taboos and superstitions

According to Stefani Rahardini, the UNICEF facilitator presiding over the discussions, most of the girls have a relatively good knowledge about menstruation, but it is their impractical habits that have become barriers to attending school.

“It’s hard enough for parents to send their kids back to school, with fear of aftershocks still hanging over them,” she says. “But a natural and regular cycle of menstruation should not be the cause for missing school.”

In other discussion groups, female teachers share stories about their own knowledge of menstruation as well as the ways in which they try to help female students overcome their fears in managing their cycle,

These focus groups, however, are too few and far between. Only a handful of schools across the country are willing to talk with their female students about matters to do with their bodies. Menstruation remains a prickly subject, full of taboos and superstitions.

This reluctance is also reflected in most schools’ meagre provision of sanitary pads for female students Some of them do sell disposable pads in the school shops but few have proper closed rubbish bins to dispose of them.

Girls in SMP Negeri 1 Tanjung Lombok
Girls during Menstrual Hygiene activity in a UNICEF Indonesia-supported focus group

Scaling up WASH facilities in earthquake-affected schools

In the wake of the earthquake, UNICEF—in partnership with the government and the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI)—launched a series of emergency response.

An integral part of it was the provision of physical facilities such as temporary toilets and waste bins and the distribution of hygiene and dignity kits such as soap, towels and underwear to earthquake-affected families. Vulnerable families and groups have also been receiving a small stipend from an emergency cash fund that enables girls like Kadek to buy the types of underwear and sanitary pads of their choice.


Helping girls overcome their inhibitions

Another important part of the UNICEF-led emergency response was public education on menstrual hygiene.

By engaging schools, health clinics, the local health office and community volunteers, girls were encouraged to return to school and feel good about themselves and their bodies.


Bullying and lack of openness

One of the biggest hurdles in the awareness-raising process, according to Stefani, is the lack of openness between female students and their female teachers. “It’s not something students will go to a female teacher about, let alone a male teacher,” she says. “Problem is, many female teachers aren’t even aware that many students are struggling with menstruation-related stuff.”

For many female students, part of that struggle is being bullied by male schoolmates, as Kadek has experienced.

“Sometimes these boys would rummage in my school bag, and when they find a sanitary napkin they will show it to the entire class and mock me.”

Kadek Ariasti Widhiari, 14, student

It is clear that to improve understanding and practice of menstrual hygiene, awareness-raising cannot be confined to girls and their support system alone; rather, it should involve the males in their lives too—fathers, siblings, friends—in a more long-term and comprehensive way.

How You Can Help

Thanks to the generous contributions of individual donors, UNICEF has been able to work with Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) workers and officials across Indonesia to support families and girls’ needs during emergencies such as natural disasters.

Yet better understanding and practice of menstrual hygiene management depends on raising the awareness of girls, boys, parents, teachers and community leaders—and this cannot be achieved overnight. It requires a continuous improvement of facilities and services and an all-inclusive cultural education. For this we need your support.

To help more girls like Kadek feel good about themselves and their bodies and raise general awareness on menstruation as a natural part of life, please consider donating to UNICEF. We very much appreciate your contribution.