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Menstruation

Why Are Tampons a Taboo in Indonesia?

We talk to women about why tampons can be so terrifying.

by Cassie Martin and Natalie Stuart
08 March 2017, 3:32am

Illustration by Bambang Noer Ramadhan.

In recent years there has been a peak in discourse concerning the monthly menstrual cycles experienced by half of the world's population. Many women are questioning as to why so much shame, embarrassment, and awkwardness surrounds this natural bodily function that demonstrates the healthy and working reproductive system of a woman.

Cultural practices surrounding menstruation vary globally, for example here in Indonesia a study found that many women believe that if they wash their hair whilst menstruating, they are at risk of death. When asked to explain this rationally, none of them were able to come up with a reason for this happening. Some girls who were interviewed even believed that if a boy physically touched them during menstruation then they would fall pregnant.

The report was conducted for UNICEF Indonesia and reported that a quarter of girls had not talked to anyone about menstruation before their first cycle, and a further 17% were not aware that it was a sign of puberty.

One of the most confusing and widely feared beliefs that we came across however, was the idea that the use of tampons can actually take your virginity. Prof. Dr. Nugroho Kampono of the Brawijaya Women & Children Clinic told VICE Indonesia that "Culturally, in Indonesia, the breaking of the hymen means that the girl is no longer a virgin. The hymen can also break from trauma through sport or cycling and so on."

An intact hymen is so important to Indonesian women that some undergo surgery to re-virginize themselves. "With just two or three stitches, you can become a virgin again" Doctor Kampono told VICE.

We wanted to figure out just how widely held this belief is, so we asked different women about their how they handle their period and the beliefs around them.

Shafira, 25, uses tampons, editor

How old were you when you started using tampons?

I first started using tampons when I was 15 but it felt uncomfortable at the time so I switched back to pads. I was 20 when I started to regularly use tampons. I was abroad at the time and ran out of pads. The nearest store only sold tampons so I had no choice. When I tried this time, it felt right immediately—maybe I just got better at inserting them because I used to have a hard time.

Why do you prefer tampons?

I think tampons are more practical than pads—especially when you are traveling or on the road for a while because they last longer than pads and you don't have to change them as often. I use tampons when I'm swimming because pads are gross. Pads get all bulky in the water and I'm always afraid that the blood will spill and turn the pool red.

Why do you think most Indonesian women use pads?

I think they are just afraid of it. You know, for some Indonesians inserting anything into your private parts is taboo. Many think that tampons can tear your hymen, and here, many think that this means you have lost your virginity.

Tampons are expensive in Indonesia. They're not as popular as pads, so they aren't made locally, which means tampons sold in Indonesia are imported. The price can be five to eight times higher than pads. A box of 20 tampons can cost you Rp 150,000, while a pack of 20 pads costs a mere Rp 20,000. Only certain people are able to afford tampons.

Nicky, 24, uses pads, journalist.

Why don't you use tampons?

Since I had my first period, the only thing my mom told me about was pads. I didn't even know there was another option like tampons. I first learned about tampons from watching a movie, and I didn't know how to use them. I looked for information about tampons once, and the way you're supposed to use them scared me (I was in junior high at the time). Putting something in my genital area sounds weird, using pads has become a habit for me, but I think tampons may be more efficient. But I rarely see it at supermarkets and since I never really have problems using pads, I am just okay with it.

Is it difficult to manage your period with pads alone?

I have actually never had problems with using pads, I can do my activities as usual. But somehow, at certain times when I want to do sports like swimming, I usually choose to postpone it until my period has ended because i don't feel comfortable swimming while using a pad. I also worry the blood might leak, especially on the first day of my period. It does inhibit me, in certain conditions, but it never really affects my daily activities.

Why do so many Indonesian women only use pads?

It's a result of the lack of information about tampons. For example, you  see TV ads, it's always pads. You never see tampons, our mothers do the same, the only thing they tell us about are pads. Using pads becomes a habit, maybe it also has something to do with the issue of virginity. But still, most married women and  sexually active people who I know don't use tampons. So I think the reason is more about a lack of information, we have never gotten the whole picture regarding tampons. We never see it, we never touch it, so we don't use it.

ANONYMOUS, 23, doesn't want her mother finding out she uses tampons.

Why did you start using tampons?

I started using tampon when I was 18, when I was studying at university in Australia. I prefer them because it's very convenient. I've always had a heavy flow since I started having periods, and sometimes pads just won't do. I often have leakage and it gets quite irritating.

Do you have any ideas as to why most Indonesian women don't use them?

I think the majority of Indonesian women aren't using tampons because they don't know what they are, you can barely find them here in Indonesia. Even if tampons are introduced here, I believe that there will still be reluctant to use them as an alternative to menstrual pads because of the belief that tampons can break your hymen and take your virginity. I keep my tampon use secret because of this. I have had the talk with my mum about tampons and she found that women who use them are the same ones who have had sex before marriage and are not scared of having their hymen broken. I'm trying to avoid the negative stigma it may cause if I open up about using tampons. 

How do you get your tampons?

I stock up in Australia because it's a lot cheaper than the ones I find in Indonesia. And I also don't get prejudice when I buy them. I haven't attempted to find tampons in Jakarta, but I have in Yogyakarta at international pharmacies. They are quite expensive as I said - sometimes I pay $16 for 10. My alternatives would be the pads that are designed for when you sleep.

RIA, 24, uses tampons, child rights activist

Why do you use tampons?

They are much easier to use and absorb more blood than pads. It is also more comfortable than using a pad. You can move more easily without worrying about blood getting on your skirt or pants. I don't like using pads when I'm exercising because I move a lot and get scared it will leak. When I use tampons during exercise, I don't worry and know it won't leak.

Why do you think most Indonesian women prefer to use pads? 

I think it's because of the shape of the tampon. They're like a small sausage and basically sits inside your vagina! Many think it is a sexual thing and will destroy your virginity. But many are also scared that it will hurt. I used to find it strange as well, but I've slowly gotten used to the idea.

Where do you find tampons in Indonesia?

Because it's so rare for Indonesian women to use them, they are difficult to find. I can manage to find them in some pharmacies.

Hani, 24, uses pads, masters student & freelance writer

Why don't you use tampons?

I personally don't use tampons because I always have this weird anxiety that it's going to leak. It makes me wonder if it is sitting there in the correct position. It is probably also because I am used to wearing pads since the first time I got my period. I only use tampons when I have no other options, I feel more insecure when I use tampons.

Why do you think the majority of Indonesian women don't use tampons?

I think that a lot of Indonesian women don't use tampons because of this belief about not-being-a-virgin-anymore if ANYTHING gets in your vagina. Ugh.