Friday, 26 May 2017

Menstruation matters for boys as well as girls

By: Liz Pick, Communication Specialist

The cover of the What is Menstruation? comic book for boys ©UNICEF Indonesia/2016/Tongeng

On 28 May, people around the world will mark Menstrual Hygiene Day calling for greater awareness about the fundamental role that good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) plays in enabling women and girls to reach their full potential. 

UNICEF Indonesia is joining the global voices to encourage education about menstruation to be extended to boys as well as girls. Some might ask: ‘But menstruation happens to girls, why do boys also need to know about it?’ 

Take this focus group as an example. Five boys, all sixth-grade students, sit in a circle in the school library and pass around a disposable sanitary pad. “What is it?” they have been asked by the group facilitator. Each student looks a little puzzled as he considers the flexible, white fabric object in his hands. Finally, one boy offers an answer: “Is it a face mask?” he guesses. 

Another student, Ariel, says he has seen one washed up on the banks of the river which runs through the village where people bathe and dispose of their rubbish. Dermawan is the only student who knows it’s a sanitary pad but he doesn’t know what it’s used for; only that his mother buys them at a stall in the market. 

A student reads through the girls side of the comic book
©UNICEF Indonesia/2016/Tongeng

In Indonesia, menstruation is considered a taboo topic and is not widely discussed. Many girls do not learn about it from their mothers or teachers but instead find out when they have their first period, which can cause feelings of fear, shame and embarrassment about this very natural bodily function.

Online polling in May 2017 by UNICEF’s U-Report revealed 17% of Indonesian girls report experiencing teasing and bullying by other students, especially boys, when they have their period. This can lead to them skipping valuable days of school each month to avoid unpleasant scenes. Over time, these missed days add up and can cause girls to fall behind in class or drop out altogether.

To combat this, in 2016 UNICEF Indonesia, in collaboration with the government’s School Health Program or UKS, published a comic book which explains menstruation using simple words and cartoon images suitable for young readers. Designed for children reaching puberty, the reversible book can be opened at either side – one for girls and one for boys.

Both sides of the comic book explain that menstruation is a natural monthly occurrence that makes it possible for women to have children.

Girls get more information about managing menstruation including good personal hygiene and sanitation practices, what to do if they feel unwell or experience pain, and how to cope if they get a blood stain on their clothes at school.

Boys on the other hand, are reminded to treat their female friends with respect, not to tease or make fun of them and to be helpful when needed.

A UNICEF team member facilitates the focus group discussion
with two students. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2016/Tongeng

Impressive results

Last year, UNICEF distributed the comic books to 50 elementary schools in highly urbanised Bandung City, West Java, and rural Biak Numfor District in Papua reaching at least 4000 boys and girls in both locations for the pilot project. Most teachers had the students read and discuss the comics during literacy lessons, while others wove them into classes such as religion, science or sports as well.

The results of the baseline and endline studies were stunning. After reading the comic in Bandung, boys’ understanding of menstruation as a normal biological process for girls increased from 60 per cent to almost 90 per cent.

Significant changes in attitudes were also measured. The number of boys who thought they should be respectful to girls who are menstruating rose to 80 per cent from 59 per cent) while 91 per cent thought they should behave better towards girls who are menstruating (up from 68 per cent).

The same trend was evident in Biak where 85 per cent of boys thought that girls should not be ridiculed, up from just 63 per cent before reading the comic.

Back in the focus group, the boys have finished reading the comic book. They take turns explaining what they have read, showing no signs of awkwardness as they correctly describe what menstruation is and why it’s important and can give clear examples of positive behaviour towards girls. It seems the message has been received loud and clear – menstruation matters for everyone.

This story is based on an earlier published article by Andi Bunga Tongeng (WASH Facilitator, UNICEF Makassar)