Girls, blood, sex: A hard look at menstruation

Fritzie Rodriguez
Girls, blood, sex: A hard look at menstruation
Sex and pregnancy, for some, will always be a mystery only meant to be solved later on in life. Or sometimes earlier, but only by accident.

MANILA, Philippines — Mama, I’m bleeding.

K told her mother after school.

It’s all right, just jump: One, two, three. Then her mother handed her a dipper. Don’t bathe, only splash water over your head: One, two, three. Next, wipe your body with raw eggs: One, two, three. Finally, the mother washed K’s blood-soaked underwear and dried K’s face with it. 

K, the 12-year-old, is now a “woman.” So be careful, her mother warned, don’t leave the house for 3 days. This meant skipping school.

These are “family rituals,” said the 63-year-old mother, for making one’s skin and menstruation cycle “smooth” – no pimples, no stink, no troubles. Sex being one of those troubles, “Bawal humakbang sa labas, palipasin muna pagliyab.” (Stepping out [during menstruation] is forbidden, blazing must first pass.)

In the next two years, K’s body began changing. The monthly bleeding continued, but it was unclear how and why.

K’s mother constantly warned her about pregnancy, “Virgin ka pa?” K would always nod. (Are you still a virgin?)

But K had no idea how to get pregnant. She did not learn it in school, which she quit a month ago. K’s mother refuses to discuss sex, “Nasasagwaan ako (I’m disgusted),” but advises her daughters to guard their “womanhood” until they meet men who would “take them seriously.”

K’s family is just one of the many Filipino households where sex is taboo. 92% of high schoolers did not discuss sex at home while growing up, while 78% said they did not have enough knowledge about sex, the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFSS) revealed. 

Girls, blood, sex

On average, Filipino women get their first period at 13, the 2013 National Demographic and Health Survey showed. It added that 10% of those aged 15-19 are already mothers.

Meanwhile, more than 60% of Filipino youth across all school levels, YAFSS reported, did not know these facts:

Among high schoolers, 29% believed women cannot get pregnant from having unprotected sex just once.

Although schools integrate basic reproductive health (RH) lessons – such as anatomy and hygiene – with science and values education classes, some students still stick with customs.

“We need to respect beliefs, but it’s important for them to learn what’s appropriate,” said Lydia Manvelda, a counselor from Enfance, a non-governmental organization (NGO) assisting families in Tondo.

At the end of the “rituals,” K’s mother taught her how to use disposable sanitary napkins. Some prefer reusable cloth, which is okay as long as it’s properly cleaned. Other parents, however, care less.

“’Yung iba, walang gamit,” Manvelda observed, “Hinahayaan lang, maruming dugo tawag nila dun.” (Others don’t use anything. They just let it be, they call it dirty blood.)

Sanitary napkins usually cost P6 apiece, depending on brands. It may seem cheap, but not all families can afford it. “’Yung iba, isang napkin lang buong araw gamit para makatipid,” Manvelda added. (Others use only one napkin the whole day to save money.)

Menstrual hygiene management

In 2012, UNICEF surveyed schools across Masbate and Manila, and identified the lack of “knowledge, support, and resources” as key problems in menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

Inadequate access to water, toilets, and disposal systems – at school and at home – contribute to poor MHM. This is despite the Philippines’ improved sanitation over the years, according to the country’s Millennium Development Goals progress.

The lack of private and functional toilets can also cause girls to withhold urinating or changing napkins, increasing their risks to infections. Washing may also be uncommon due to lack of both soap and education.

In some schools, UNICEF found that “teachers shared the traditional beliefs that girls learned at home,” hence they helped spread misinformation. (READ: Menstruation, the forgotten development issue)

Since boys also lacked knowledge, some would tease girls, resulting in the latter’s “shame, reduced class participation, and absenteeism.”

The UN advised governments to further support girls’ health by improving access to proper information, facilities, and resources regardless of class. These are universal rights, after all, concerning not only girls, but everyone.

Baseco’s girls

Baseco is home to over 51,000 Filipinos, the 2010 census reported. The port area is infamous for its frequent fires set against polluted waters.

Trails leading to makeshift homes are dotted with garbage, teenagers, and children. Half of its population are under 18, just like K.

Used sanitary napkins pile on the ground, sometimes they unfold. Culprits include the mad sun, heavy floods, stray cats, and dogs. 

Not all houses have toilets; how do girls manage? “Diskarte lang,” a group of friends said.

A few blocks away from K’s house is Princess Piamonte’s, a 39-year-old mother of 5. It was noon; she had just woken up after working all night at Divisoria.

Nataranta siya,” Princess recalled how her daughter reacted to her first period. “Sabi ko normal ‘yan, maligo ka, mag-napkin.” (She panicked. I told her it’s normal, go bathe and use a napkin.)

‘Pag nakipagtalik ka, puwede ka nang mabuntis,” she explained, adding how safe sex works. (When you have sex, you can already get pregnant.)

Health promoters

When Princess got her first period, her mother also made her undergo “rituals,” which she did not pass on to her children. 

Safe sex, condoms, pills, pregnancy. These words are not forbidden in her home, “Para habang lumalaki sila, mas naiintindihan nila.” (So while growing up, they’ll understand [RH] better.)

Princess is one of Baseco’s “community health promoters” trained by the NGOs Enfance and Likhaan. She teaches family planning, helps with the distribution of free contraceptives, and encourages neighbors to undergo check-ups.

If contraceptives were not distributed for free, her neighbors would never have used them. Princess said, “P40 ang condom, pambili na ‘yun ng bigas.” (Condoms are P40, you can already buy rice with that.)

Aside from false beliefs on menstruation, Princess observed that families also misunderstood artificial family planning methods, believing that ligation and contraceptives cause headaches, varicose veins, rashes, and cancer. Such rumors can spread like wildfire.

Educating the men, too

“Dati asawa ko wala ring alam,” shared Princess. “Dapat open din mga lalaki sa RH, pati mga anak kong lalaki sinasabihan ko.” (Before, my husband knew nothing too. Men should also be open to RH, I also discuss this with my sons.)

Meanwhile, many other teenagers like K are taught over and over that premarital sex is “bad.” Most of them, however, are not told why. 

Sex and pregnancy, for some, will always be a mystery meant only to be solved later on in life. Or sometimes earlier, but only by accident. –

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