Nuns manage sanitation and ‘that time of the month’ in the face of water and pad shortages and yet uphold the Dharma

20-year-old Dorji Phuntsho Choden from Sonamthang under Panbang joined the nunnery when she was just seven years old.

Despite societal taboos and water shortages in her community, she and her fellow nuns persevere, balancing spiritual duties with practical needs.

Unlike most of the people her age, her day starts very early. Today, she woke up a bit early unlike her usual days with a stomach cramp and backache. It is five in the morning, and Dorji is going to the washroom which is outside her room.

It is that time of the month for her, like every other woman. She goes to the bathroom and takes a cold shower before she gets ready for the day. They have a weekly routine for being the ‘Kudrung” also known as the captain, which is her turn for this week.

She shared, “In the past, we used to use cloth pieces instead of pads. We would wash and reuse those cloth pieces. Until recently, we got some sponsors who would donate sanitary pads to us. We don’t get sponsors often so, now we’re managing the basic necessities ourselves. It is very embarrassing for me to ask money from my parents, however, I’ve to ask since we aren’t able to go around for ritual activities and earn much nowadays.”

At 6 am, the nuns gather at the monastery and start with Lhabsang and other prayers which lasts for an hour. Their day lasts till 11 pm with few hours of breaks in between.

Being the Kudrung, Dorji needs to coordinates all the activities. The first day of her menstrual period is quite painful, nevertheless she bears the pain. After her morning breakfast, she goes to the washroom to check. Before her classes start at 8:30 am, she takes a short nap. Her classes start at 8:30 am till 11 am and gets a break for their lunch.

Her afternoon class resumes at 1 pm which last till 6 pm. She gets a short break in between. During the breaks, she goes to take a half body bath and change the sanitary pads. Even after lunch, she has to resume with her self-study and evening prayers till 11 pm. Before she goes to bed, she takes a shower.

The weather in Panbang is scorching hot with high level of humidity even before the summer has started. Water is one of the main issues in the community because of heavy rain often leading to pipe breakage. They sometimes have to take water from others sources as well. They often face water shortages which hinders their daily activities, such as drinking water, cooking and washing.

“From the start of May until the summer season ends, we often face water issues. The heavy rainfall cuts off our water sources. During such times, we go to repair the pipe ourselves even when it rains heavily,” Dorji said.

19-year-old Rinchen Lhaden had her first period when she was 12 years old.

She shared, “My period lasts for 3-4 days, and unlike the past, we have come to use the sanitary pads which is more comfortable and hygienic. We have good drinking water which is donated by UNICEF, however, we face problems for the water needed for other purposes. The problem with our toilets is that we often encounter snakes inside. We don’t have good toilet conditions and it is also very compact for us.”

23-year-old Ugyen Tshomo shared, “My period is often heavy so it’s hard to manage sanitation, especially during the menstrual time. To purchase basic necessities, we help one another when we run out of money. We try to keep our selves clean as much as possible, so that we practice the religious activities properly.” 

According to UNICEF, adolescent girls, transgender men and non-binary persons face gender inequality, discriminatory social norms, cultural taboos, poverty and lack of basic services like toilets and sanitary products can all cause menstrual health and hygiene needs to go unmet.

There is a religious taboo in Buddhism that a woman cannot enter temples or practice religious activities while they’re menstruating. Some people consider this period impure and dirty, forcing a woman to abstain from religious activities. 

“That’s just a social stigma which has been going on for ages. We don’t really believe in such things. All we need to do is maintain hygiene during our period. However, we also face discrimination from people so we try to teach the younger ones on sanitation and the proper ways to dispose those pads,” Dorji added.

The nunnery has total of 31 nuns, the oldest being 54 years old and youngest being 3 years old. The older nuns teach their younger ones who don’t know much about the importance of keeping the body clean, especially during that time of the month.

Woeselcholing Nunnery is situated at Panbang Dungkhag under Zhemgang.

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