Saina Hamidi, a psychological counsellor in Kabul, Afghanistan, says she was around nine years old when she first heard mention of women who bleed. Her older sister had come across one of their cousins washing bloodied clothes and told their mother about it. “I overheard my mother reprimand my sister for talking about it and tell her not to mention it to anyone else,” Hamidi recalled.

The message was clear, Hamidi added: “If we were to ever see it again, we should hide it.”

In Afghanistan, menstruation is referred to — on the rare occasion that it is mentioned at all — as zan marizi, which literally means “a woman’s illness.”

The tone of the conversation made Hamidi, now 24, believe that perhaps their cousin had done something shameful. “We both didn’t know what it really meant to bleed like that,” she said. “But between my sister and myself, we came to the conclusion that this probably happened to our cousin because she hadn’t been a good girl.” Neither Hamidi nor her sisters had any knowledge or access to information about the perfectly normal and expected physical changes their bodies were about to experience. In fact, they didn’t even know the word for menstruation or period, which in Afghanistan is referred to, on the rare occasion that it is mentioned at all, as zan marizi, which literally means “a woman’s illness.”

The experiences of Hamidi and her family are by no means isolated in this part of the world, where a prevailing pall of shame and dishonor still hovers over women’s puberty. Misinformation about the subject of women’s health and hygiene is widespread, and young women are nudged toward traditional — and often unhealthy — practices to cope with their biological development. These include everything from avoiding vegetables in the diet to not bathing for the duration of a period — a purported hedge against infertility. This, coupled with the lack of access to affordable hygiene products, has resulted not only in poor physical and mental health, but also in girls dropping out of school after they begin to menstruate.

In response, small but significant efforts to change these perceptions have recently taken root in Afghanistan. Most prominent among these is a campaign by the Ministry of Education with support from the United Nations to train teachers to help female students better understand and prepare for their periods.

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