Do young girls know their bodies?

Published at : August 7, 2019

The internet, mobile apps and the gynaecologists’ office have greatly aided adolescent girls learn about their sexual and reproductive health.

Sweksha Karna

When blood streamed down her thighs, 11-year-old Shrijana Dutta thought she had cancer. Her thighs and private parts were covered in blood. Frantic, she locked herself in the bathroom and cried all night. It was only when her aunt found her on the bathroom floor the next morning did she find out that she had had her first periods.

“We had health education classes at school, but we were never taught about these things,” she says, now 25 years old. Dutta’s experience is not unique in Nepali society. Like her, most teenage girls were left to their own devices when it came to understanding the changes adolescence was bringing into their bodies. And despite having questions regarding their changing bodies, many young adults didn’t know whom to ask and how to find answers.

Today, things are a little better for young adults, Dutta says. Social attitudes have changed a bit, basic sexual and reproductive education has been incorporated in the school curriculum, and, with the boom of the internet, people have more access to information. Some restrictions still linger, but those who want to know more about their bodies can turn to many mediums of professional help. “We had sexual and reproductive health classes in school, but the texts were just introductory and the teacher skipped through most of it,” says 18-year-old Prarthana Uday.

Uday says that it is still an uncomfortable conversation in her family, to be talking about her body or sex. Many in Nepal, even in the urban areas, still refrain from talking to their children on topics regarding menstruation, sanitation, sex or masturbation. Young girls are still only taught about the usage of sanitary pads and menstruation hygiene after they get their periods, not before. “The birds and the bees” talk, which is a euphemism that refers to a parent-child conversation about courtship and sexual intercourse in western countries, does not happen here. “There is no way I can talk about safe sex practices and healthy reproductive habits at home or at school,” says Uday.

Dr Nira Shrestha, a practising gynaecologist in Mediciti Hospital, Nakkhu, agrees with Uday. In her experience, many adolescent girls who visit her are mostly scared of being judged. “But this is gradually changing,” she says. According to her, women visit gynaecologists only after things have escalated and they are suffering from grave problems. But she says that a woman can consult a medical professional at any stage between “womb to tomb” regarding any curiosity or query. But most females choose not to do so out of embarrassment and lack of awareness.

“We are here to help, and young girls should be encouraged more to seek professional help if they are confused or worried about anything related to their sexual and reproductive health,” says Shrestha. The ones who do seek help say their visits to the gynaecologist have always been extremely fruitful. Uday herself recalls, “Talking to a doctor gave me a new perspective to look at things from. My books and my parents only ever talked to me about things from the surface. But he explained everything to me better and also taught me about the things that should be done and how.”

 This is even more important in a patriarchal and conservative society like ours, where many families—despite being educated—believe that talking about sex will only encourage young adults to get involved in physical relationships.“I share a very strong bond with my daughter but some things are very hard for me to tell her as a mother,” says Sushmita Karmacharya, a 43-year-old mother of a 17-year-old. “I did warn her about periods and sanitation beforehand, but I don’t plan on giving her ‘the talk’. It would be like licensing pre-marital sex.”

“I remember when we were kids, if an ad for a condom ever came up, either my parents would change the channel or my siblings and I would leave the room, making some excuse. We were brought up that way. It was only later that I understood how important it was to talk about these things. It would have definitely helped me to make decisions for myself,” Dutta said. With parents avoiding these subjects and teachers skipping lessons at school, young girls have limited resources to satisfy their curiosity about their own bodies. Many are subjected to acquiring information about these things through their friends. Many turn to the internet.

“I usually go to Quora or Reddit if I have to ask any questions anonymously,” she said. However, the information on the internet may become confusing and difficult to navigate. “I turned 14 a couple of months ago and I’ve recently started to question things but I don’t know where to ask them. I would normally go to the internet, but I find it quite overwhelming,” said Piya Sharma. This isn’t something that only young girls are facing. Many older women, even ones who are well into their 40s and 50s, are also curious and keen to learn more about their bodies, but they too face the same dilemma: they don’t know where to go, whom to talk to, and how. For such women, apps like ‘Mero Lagi’ have been very helpful. Dr Rolina Dhital, one of the minds behind the app, said, “We developed this app targeting adolescent girls, but a lot of adults have started engaging in it as well.”

According to her, the app is a great user-friendly medium to spread awareness through lighthearted activities. “The users are extremely interactive. They have a lot of questions regarding topics like sex, menstruation, masturbation and family planning. We’re extremely glad that we were one of the first apps targeted to address this issue,” Dhital added. Since the launch of ‘Mero Lagi’ app in 2017, other apps like ‘Khulduli’ (by UNFPA and National Health Education Information Communication Centre) and ‘Nari Paila’ (by Group for Rural Infrastructure Development Nepal) have been launched. These apps, through quizzes, mythbusters, games and Q&A sections, talk about issues that adolescents should be informed about.

Though some extent of positive change has been seen in the last few years, young girls like Uday still feel like they don’t know enough. Other organisations like Skill Information Society Nepal, Public Health Concern Trust Nepal, and even the Ministry of Health itself is trying to make the environment favourable for young girls to ask questions. And this will only change when talking about sexual and reproductive health among women—even at a young age—is normalised, especially at home. Dhital puts it best: if you’re old enough to ask, you’re old enough to know.

Source: The Kathmandu Post