As Bernadette begins discussing human anatomy and reproductive organs, giggles and laughter erupt from adult participants living in Ende District, Indonesia. As the conversation continues, red-faced, bashful smiles begin to emerge.
This is clearly one of the first times these parents – who belong to the local school committee – have discussed these topics in the open, let alone with other adults and their children.
Their discomfort in discussing such taboo topics becomes even more evident when Bernadette, a field officer from a local government agency, explained common occurrences during adolescent puberty, like when a boy experiences “wet dreams” or when a girl begins menstruation.
“That is their usual reaction, both from the mothers and fathers,” said Bernadette. “It is taboo to talk about these issues.”
Bernadette and other field officers from her agency, Petugas Lapangan Keluarga Berencanas PLKB, are working with Plan International Indonesia to implement a menstrual hygiene management program across five schools in Indonesia.
Given parents’ discomfort and hesitation to discuss these topics, many students in Indonesia have limited knowledge and understanding about menstruation and reproductive health. This is particularly the case for female students in fourth to sixth grade, who are lacking the knowledge to deal with – and prepare for – their first period.
Data from Plan shows that many female students do not receive the correct information on how to manage their hygiene and health during menstruation.
Similarly, female students have reported feeling worried and anxious during their periods as a result of having incorrect information from their school teachers.
A lack of knowledge and a combination of anxiety and shame has led to a high number of girls who skip class during their monthly menstruation cycles. This feeling of embarrassment is only worsened by comments made my male students. Incidents have been reported where girls are teased and mocked if they are seen with blood stains on their clothes and skin, without having noticed themselves.
“A female student once told me how she panicked when she started her period at school,” said Bernadette. “She was terrified as suddenly there were blood stains on her skirt. Her friends were panicked as well. They said when there is blood, it means she is injured inside. They had no idea that she was actually just menstruating.”
When the menstrual hygiene program was first introduced into schools, people were uneasy and apprehensive to discuss such difficult topics.
It eventually became clear to parents in the school committee, however, that it would be dangerous for their children if they were not fully informed on reproductive health issues.
Students are also thankful to learn about these topics.
“I am happy to receive this knowledge,” said 11-year-old Putri. “When it happens to me, I do not need to be afraid as menstruation is normal for a girl. Now I know how to deal with the situation.
“My male friends are also happy. Now they understand what is happening, so if any of the girls are having their period, nobody is allowed to mock us. Even the boys need to help us if we are having difficulties.”