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My first period

Photo story: My first period

Confined indoors for seven days. Banned from using salt in food. Forced to miss classes at school. Nine girls from around the world bravely open up about the stigmas and difficulties they faced when they got their first period.

Find out how we're helping girls and women tackle period taboos around the world >

Chandarayani is not allowed to cook when she is on her period

"I am not allowed to take a bath, rinse my hair or cook when I have a period."  Chandarayani, 11, Indonesia

“The first time I got my period, I told my father,” says Chandarayani, who lives in a small village in Indonesia. “It felt very strange as I wasn’t expecting to see spots of blood on my underwear. I didn’t know how to handle it.”

Chandarayani’s father quickly told her mother, who reassured her it was a normal process and showed her how to put on a sanitary pad. 

“In my family there is no tradition nor rituals applied when a girl has the first period. But there are things that my mother asks me not to do during menstruation,” says Chandarayani. “I am not allowed to take a bath, rinse my hair or cook.”

Luckily, Chandarayani is still able to go to school when she has her period. 

“I don’t have to take sanitary pads to school with me as Plan International Indonesia has equipped our school toilet with clean water, boxes for sanitary pads and tissues. During menstruation my school days can run normally now. Nothing bothers me,” she says.

Janaki believes her period makes her impure

"My period made me ‘impure.'" Janaki, 16, Nepal

“When I had my first period, I felt so scared. I didn’t want to tell my family, so I went to my neighbour’s house,” says Janaki.

“I didn’t take a bath for the first three days. Then, my friend’s mother tore a piece from an old saree for me to use as a sanitary pad.”

Even though she would clean the piece of cloth, Janaki feared being found out and would leave it to dry inside. After three days, her mother found out about her period and announced: 'Since today, you have become impure.'

Janaki didn’t know what menstruation meant, why or how it was happening. But recently, she’s had the opportunity to learn more and has found out how to manage her health and hygiene.

Through training sessions organised by Plan International Nepal’s partner organisation, she’s learnt there’s no need to be shy about menstruation.

“It is a natural process for all women. If we do not have periods, we cannot be mothers,” she says.

Janaki is now working with other teenagers, sharing her knowledge on the topic and reducing the stigma attached to it.

Alinafe was confined to the house when she had her period

"I was confined to the house for seven days." Alinafe, 15, Malawi

“I was 13 when I got my period. I thought I’d hurt myself,” recalls Alinafe (left) from Malawi.

She rushed to tell her friend, but they were both alarmed when the blood didn’t stop. 

When Alinafe’s mother found out, she sent her daughter to a neighbour’s house where she was given some rags. Alinafe then went to stay with her grandmother in another community.

“I was told to stay inside my grandmother’s house for a week and taught how to wear rags, so I didn’t stain my clothes with blood and bring shame on my family,” she says.

Cooking was an issue too. “I wasn’t allowed to cook food until my second period – and I was told not to put any salt in people’s food,” Alinafe explains.

The seven day ceremony also resulted in Alinafe missing school. “I missed some lessons, but I have now graduated into adulthood. When I came out of confinement, we held a ceremony,” she says.

Today, Plan International Malawi has been working at Alinafe’s school, spreading the word about how to support girls’ education. The women talk to the female students about several issues, including menstrual hygiene, and have sessions with girls who have not started their periods yet.

Marie doesn't have sanitary pads to help her when she is on her period.

"I have one pair of knickers and no sanitary pads." Marie, 15, Burundi

“No more jokes with boys, you are a grown up now,” said Marie’s mother, when she heard her daughter had got her first period.

Marie, 15, has just fled from Burundi to Rwanda to escape political turmoil. She says: “When I got my period, I was offered no explanation. No one told me what to wear or how to cope with the bleeding.”

Unfortunately, menstruation is still surrounded by many taboos and myths in Burundi – and it’s a topic that’s only discussed behind closed doors.

Plan International Rwanda has been holding sessions in a refugee centre, currently home to over 4,000 people, educating young girls on the issue of sexual exploitation, as well as providing a safe space to discuss the myths surrounding menstruation.

One young girl said she is afraid to tell her mother about menstruation, in case she laughs at her. Others say taking a bath near any kind of utensil at home is prohibited, as drops of blood could kill family members.

Other girls have been told to stay away from men during menstruation, and to place blood on their breasts to stop them from falling.

Managing their periods has also been difficult for the girls and women seeking refuge in the camp.

According to Euphrasie, 46, from Burundi: “Most of us came in the clothes we are wearing. Crossing borders to flee a country is prohibited, so if we came with more clothes, it would have raised suspicions. That’s why many of us only have one pair of knickers and no sanitary pads.”

Another young girl explains: “When I am on my period, it is embarrassing. I have to wash and change my underwear regularly. I can’t dry it outside as people will laugh at me, so I hang my belongings in the tent we share, or I put my underwear on while it’s still wet.”

Plan International Rwanda is currently working with the female refugees in the camp, distributing sanitary pads and underwear to help them manage their periods.

Esha misses school during her period

"My period means I have to miss school." Esha, 14, India

Esha always felt too scared to talk about menstruation. “When I first started my period, I was aware of the changes in my body but I was too shy to talk about it,” she says.

“At first I used homemade sanitary pads called ‘kapda’. ‘Kapda’ is essentially just a piece of cloth. I was only able to use them two to three times after they had been washed with water and I had to make sure the rags were left to dry in the sun.”

The kapda were unhygienic and Esha often fell ill from using them, making it even more difficult to go to school.

“I would often miss five to six days of school, as there were no proper toilet facilities. I had no other option. It was difficult, especially when it came to exam time,” she explains.

Day to day life was also difficult for Esha, due to the cultural taboos that surround menstruation in India.

“During my period, I am not allowed to leave home and I am not allowed to visit any religious places as it is considered a sin,” she explains.

Nowadays, life is a bit easier. With the support of Plan International India and its partner organisation, new toilets have been installed at Esha’s school, along with incinerators where girls are able to get rid of their used sanitary towels.

Teachers have also been educating girls on the topic of menstrual health.

“My teacher has taught me a great deal about menstrual health and I feel comfortable talking to her about it. I even give her money to purchase sanitary pads,” Esha says.

“These lessons have really helped, as now I feel able to concentrate more on my education and studies.”

Christine's mum refused to buy her sanitary pads

"My mother refused to buy me any sanitary pads." Christine, 17, Uganda

“My first period came when I was 12 – a day after my sister started hers,” says Christine, 17.

“When I saw blood on my knickers, I rushed to ask my sister where it was coming from. She said I had started menstruating, but I didn’t understand what she meant.”

Christine was told to have a bath and tell her mother what had happened. 

“My mother bought me two pairs of knickers,” says Christine. “When I asked her about the pads, she told me she uses rags and I should use the same. I got a cloth we were no longer using, tore it into pieces, washed it and dried it properly. That’s how I managed my first period and for the long time to follow.”

Christine asked her friends about managing their periods too.

“Some told me they use rags, others said they use disposable pads – but my mother still refused to buy me sanitary pads. Fearing I would stain my school dress, I asked my big sister for help.”

Unaware her period was set to last for longer than a day, Christine was shocked when the bleeding continued.

“It took a full week – seven school days. I was forced to go back to my mother and ask for pads again. She still refused. That’s when I started doing manual labour, digging for people, to earn money for pads. When I failed to earn enough, I started using rags again.”

Today, Christine has access to sanitary pads through the AFRIPads scheme, supported by Plan International Uganda. AFRIPad’s are reusable pads which can be washed, dried and reused again for one year. 

Plan International UK has also worked with young girls such as Christine, educating them about the importance of menstrual health through plays and awareness-raising sessions.

Trem stains white clothes with first blood to prevent spells

"We stain white clothes with first blood to prevent spells." Trem, 14, Cambodia

When Trem first got her period she felt overwhelmed and embarrassed.

“I was collecting water from the well in the field, near to my village in Cambodia. Even though I’d heard about menstruation, I didn’t realise I was getting my period. I just felt panicked and unsure of what to do next.”

Trem quickly went home and told her elder sister and her mother what had happened – her father died when she was young.

“My sister told me to have a bath, then she showed me how use sanitary pads,” Trem says.

Trem’s first period was far from over though. “When you first get your period in my community, it is tradition for our elders to tell us to take a bath using certain soap, otherwise we won’t get another period.

“We also have to tie our hands with red thread and stain white clothes with the first blood to bring us good luck and to prevent diseases or spells,” she says.

While Trem has become accustomed to managing her menstruation, the monthly process still affects her studies.

“When I have my period, I have to go home to change my sanitary pad as we don’t have the facilities I need at school,” says Trem.

“Luckily, my home is not far from school, but others aren’t so fortunate. Some children’s houses are very far, so they don’t bother coming back to school.”

Trem actively promotes girls’ rights in her community, and has learnt a lot from Plan International Cambodia and its partner organisation, who have been providing girls with sanitary pads and educating young people about the importance of sexual health and hygiene.

Vevin believes she cannot water flowers when she's on her period

"I cannot water flowers or eat sour food when I am menstruating." Vevin, 12, Indonesia

Vevin first got her period in church. “I told my dad, who was sitting next to me,” she says.

“I had a terrible stomach ache and headache, so I left and found my mother who got me some sanitary pads.”

Although there are no traditions to follow, there are a few things Vevin isn’t allowed to do during her period.

“My mother has told me not to rinse my hair, get close to boys, water flowers or eat sour food while I am on my period,” she explains.

However, Vevin is still able to go to school when she menstruates, as her school is equipped with toilets, sanitary pads and clean water, thanks to Plan International Indonesia.

“Menstruation does not disturb my school activities,” Vevin explains.

“I have never been mocked by my friends at school, although some girls are still scared about getting their period.

"The only time it is difficult is if my period comes when I am in class, as I would wait until the class ends rather than excuse myself."

Only women can see Dilki when she's on her period

"During my first period, only women could see me." Dilki, 17, Sri Lanka

“When I got my period, I knew I was facing a change,” says Dilki, 17.

“Girls usually spend three to seven days in a secure place, such as a room in their house. During that time, only female members are allowed to see us – no men, family or non-family members are allowed in. Then we celebrate our first steps into womanhood.”

According to Dilki, the astrologer plays a major role when it comes to a girl’s first period. After her horoscope has been read, girls receive their first bath early in the morning – usually from their mother.

In rural Sri Lanka, a washer-woman conducts the rituals of the bathing ceremony. Then there is a big party for the girl, along with her family and friends, where she will receive gifts such as gold or precious jewellery. This is often seen as the biggest celebration in a girl’s life before marriage.

While girls are aware of the rituals surrounding their first period, Dilki says not much information was available on menstrual hygiene.

“It is not a topic we discuss with our mothers or with our friends,” she explains. “We weren’t told how to maintain our personal hygiene during our periods or where we should dispose used sanitary products.”

School wasn’t easy either. “I studied in a mixed school, so we had to be extra careful, especially with boys around,” says Dilki.

“Many of my friends had to leave school early during their period and sometimes they wouldn’t return for days.”

Now, Plan International Sri Lanka has been working with schools to discuss how to maintain menstrual hygiene.

As Dilki explains: “Plan visited my school and we discussed the importance of menstrual hygiene. It was the first time we’d openly spoken about it with our teachers.

“Separate toilets were constructed for boys and girls, providing us with a safe space to clean ourselves, while a brick and cement structure was constructed to dispose of used sanitary napkins.”

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