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Why We Should Start Normalising Conversations About Period and How

by Chloe Lee. |

In a Malaysian Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Survey (2015), it was found that:

  • 51% of participants did not know a woman can get pregnant during her period

  • 1 out of 10 Malaysians would not get tested and treated even if they have been exposed to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STI) risks as it is perceived as “shameful”

  • 34% of participants do not realize the importance of consent

Inspired by an idea to shed importance on combatting the lack of proper sex education, 6 University youths established RedTalks. RedTalks is a non-profit, youth-led initiative powering to destigmatize periods, fight period poverty, and increase accessibility to reproductive and menstrual education across Malaysia, irrespective of gender or age. RedTalks has since reached thousands of women all around Malaysia and the world through online content curation via their growing social media presence, donated thousands of sanitary pads to menstruators, as well as delivered talks on sexual, reproductive and menstrual health to refugee schools and shelter homes across the Klang Valley.

We spoke to Charmaine, one of the founding members of RedTalk, about the importance of sex education and the roles of parents, teachers and employers in reducing the stigma surrounding these conversations:

Photo of Charmaine at the recent Merdeka Menstrual event

1. Why should we start normalising and encouraging conversations about periods?

From RedTalk’s experience talking to kids and teenagers, there is a lot of fear behind what is normal and completely biological. Menstruation is a natural process for the female body (and happens to 50% of the population!) and these stigmas will keep a lot of young women from reaching their fullest potential.

For example, there are a lot of myths surrounding periods: such as not being able to leave the house at certain hours, not being able to hang out with opposite genders because it is deemed “unclean” or that women should not exercise on their periods (ps: women actually should).

As such, they believe that these restrictions can be lifted up through proper education and open conversations so that women would be more empowered to reach for the stars and chase after their goals.

2. Is sex education all about sex (and/or the promotion or pre-marital sex)?

A lot of people think that the discussion about sex would encourage more young people to engage in pre-marital sex. However, we have to remember that we can never stop someone from doing what they want. Instead, we should properly educate or shed light on the more important thing here and that is the use of contraception. They should be equipped with the right information and knowledge to avoid hurting themselves - mentally, physically or emotionally.

It is also about 100% body autonomy and knowing their individual rights. It is about knowing their options – to say “no” if they aren’t comfortable, to choose from different contraception methods or to access healthcare facilities. It is about knowing what keeps them safe and being able to easily access them.

Lastly, it is about maintaining individual dignities. RedTalks runs outreach programs to teach young children about safe or unsafe touches, recognizing what makes them uncomfortable and knowing what is or is not okay (or acceptable). It is about developing a healthy perception of and towards their own bodies, so they do not allow the media (or even pornography) to help them define what should be “natural”.

Flow For Their Flows Yoga Fundraising Event

3. How can women learn to be more comfortable with their bodies or body image?

Having open conversations with the female figures in their lives. Although sometimes these topics are awkward or uncomfortable, it is important to reach out and create a safe space to discuss these private matters or to ask questions. If not, find a platform they know is safe or of which they can trust. For RedTalks, they often have girls reaching out to them with their “second account” to remain anonymous. Unless they conduct a public poll, they keep all these conversations confidential and would respect the messenger’s privacy.

Other than that, it is really just about getting to know their body and feeling comfortable with it. An exercise RedTalks recommend is to just observe their bodies in the mirror and to get acquainted with how it looks naturally. It is also crucial for women to understand that their bodies are 100% theirs, and are not dictated or defined by who they marry. This is not only important so that individual body images are not dictated by what the media is considered as “pretty”, but also to be able to identify and prevent any health conditions. For example, if anyone notices a lump that was never there before, early prevention might be able to save their lives!

RedTalks also runs programs and publishes information that debunks a lot of myths and discusses private matters openly such as whether or not female bodies are supposed to be hairless (no) or are boobs supposed to be even (not necessarily).

4. How can men partake in this conversation without being seen as perverts?

All men will have female figures in their lives, this could be their mother, sister, partner or friend, that will experience having periods. So, it is normal for men to want to be a part of the conversation, and should intentionally be more aware of the female experience. They can start by asking genuine questions, being more sensitive about what women go through and to avoid mansplaining their own periods to them or making insensitive remarks.

On the other hand, women should give men the benefit of the doubt and answer their questions truthfully and without censorship. If women are ashamed to share their own experiences, this will lead men into believing that there is indeed a reason to be ashamed.

5. What are the roles of parents in normalizing sex education?

Parents often teach the ‘software’ or more human and psychological aspects. For example, teaching their children how to empathize with someone who is in pain, how to listen, or to simply make it a norm to have these conversations openly and respectfully.

The formative life of the child is spent with the parents, as such, they are the ones to introduce their children to the concept of safe or unsafe touches. This exercise would be able to prevent child abuse, protect them with dignity and empower them with knowledge. That said, it is also important for parents to create trust and let their children know that they would protect them at all cost.

6. What are the roles of the school and teachers in normalizing sex education?

Schools or formal education often teaches the “hardware”, such as the science behind the menstrual cycle or even how to wear a sanitary pad properly. However, the school also has a role in instilling the necessary respect or empathy towards the female classmates who are experiencing their periods (especially for teenagers, this is really new to them too). Schools also have the responsibility to normalize periods or address puberty by having inclusive conversations with both boys or girls – so that both genders are aware of the changes their bodies are experiencing. This is because knowledge should not be gender-specific (like maths, biology should not be), and could prevent teenagers from “discovering” in unhealthy ways.

As for younger children, the school is one of the first few places they meet and interact with new people. As such, teachers should re-emphasise what are safe or unsafe touches, and ensure that the kids can go to them as safe figures to confide in.

7. What are the roles of employers or organizations in normalizing periods?

RedTalks previously launched a #JomCutiHaid campaign with the intentions to raise awareness about period pains and the struggles of those who suffer from extreme pain. A company in India has recently implemented period leave, which brought about a debate on whether or not it would end taboo or increase discrimination towards women at hiring stages. RedTalks aims to address such discrimination in Malaysia and talk about how best to create a humane environment where individual needs are met, and where women are supported to reach their fullest potential.

8. How does Red Talks address period poverty?

RedTalks runs educational programs – online, with schools or centres – to discuss things relating to menstrual productions such as how to make it more accessible to B40 women and even abortions in Malaysia. They also run donation campaigns to provide menstrual productions to women who cannot afford them.

9. How else can we overcome the taboo revolving around such conversations?

Follow RedTalks on Instagram – engage in their infographics and share them so more people are aware, and it becomes less of a taboo to talk about! Aside from just talking about it, it is important to make the presence of these topics more evident in our society, and this can be as simple as re-sharing existing infographics, or educating themselves about the topics.

If they have the opportunity to do so, organize their own conversation circles amongst their community to create a safe space for other women, and to also inspire confidence and empower others – it is nothing to be ashamed of!

You can find out more about the author on Instagram.

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