BLOOMING ORCHIDS AND BANANA PEELS: COMING OF AGE IN THE PHILIPPINES
By Gina Mission, Philippines



"It was like a scene in a witchcraft movie," says Jocelyn Nakila, 14, of her first menstruation.

The nightmare began when her alarm clock buzzed at 6AM in her home in Bagong Silang, one of Manila's slums. With eyes still half-open, Jocelyn quickly began folding her blanket so that she would get to school on time. She was about to drop the folded sheet on the pillow when something caught her eye. Blood! There was blood on her bedcover!

Jocelyn was certain her strict mother, Nenita, would demand an explanation for the stained bedspread. And what would she tell her? She didn't even know where on earth this blood came from. Opening the bedroom door, she gave one last scornful look at her bed. There was another bloodstain on the edge where she had just sat! Her upper thigh was bleeding! She'd bleed to death!

The next thing she knew she was lying on her parents' bed as her mother explained to her that the bleeding was normal; she was menstruating. Then Nenita mother did a strange thing: she took Jocelyn's stained underwear and handed it back to her.

"Wipe your face with this," instructed Nenita. "This will give you a pimple-free face."

Thus began the "witchcraft-like" scene. "I closed my eyes and held my breath while I wiped the cloth on my face. Every stroke was like eternity. I thought I'd passed out again," Jocelyn reveals, adding that she has a weak stomach and gets nauseous easily.

Philippine society is filled with many customs and taboos about menstruation that cross class backgrounds and place of origin. For example, it is considered bad luck for a menstruating woman, or even any of her relatives, to bet on a cockfight, a popular sport. Nor should menstruating woman step over, or get, near any kind of plant since it is believed that her negative energies will cause the plant to wither away.

Most of the menstruation customs begin with a young girl's first drop of blood and are believed to make future menstruations easier. After Jocelyn had wiped her faced with the stained cloth, Nenita brought her downstairs and, without saying a word, signaled her to jump down the last three steps. She then brought her to their backyard where she cut a banana leaf and signaled Jocelyn to sit on it for three minutes.

"I was too exhausted to ask or complain. Besides, I didn't know what was going to happen to me, so I just submitted to my mother's wishes," recalls Jocelyn. "All the time my mother would only make hand signals for me to follow. She never spoke a word."

Nenita then made Jocelyn step over a blooming orchid three times while clutching a cotton ball. Finally, she motioned for her to take a bath.

Nenita then explained what all these customs meant: Jumping off the last three steps of the stairs is supposed to make menstruation last for three days only; sitting on the banana leaf will prevent clothing from getting stained with blood even during the period's heaviest days; the orchid will ensure a menstruating woman smells fragrant; the light and airiness of the cotton ball will prevent the feeling of being burdened during menstruation and finally the bath will ensure that she can continue bathing during all future mensturations without getting sick since many menstruating women in the Philippines, especially in the rural areas, are prohibited from bathing lest they go insane. Her mother's silence was to ensure the effectiveness of these rituals.

Jocelyn also missed school that day and mother and daughter celebrated this symbolic end of her girlhood and introduction to womanhood. Jocelyn was made to rest, but then had to do household chores so she wouldn't get lethargic when she next had her menace. Unfortunately, her mother had to give a valid reason to the teacher on her daughter's absence and by the time she went to school the following day everyone in the school knew Jocelyn's secret.

"My classmates started acting awkward towards me," Jocelyn recalls. "My close friends wouldn't let me join the games we usually played during recess time. My boy classmates kept on following wherever I went, mocking my 'tragedy.'"

Mary Grace Colon, 16, the girl everybody teased as the class' "nanny" because she was two years older than the rest, however, defended Jocelyn's side because she had also already experienced menstruation. But unlike Jocelyn, Mary Grace didn't follow the proper customs, something she blamed on her mother.

"My mother was not really attending to every detail, as she had something else important to do," Mary Grace explains. "So I missed some important precautions."

For example, when her mother instructed her to apply a raw egg on her face so she wouldn't get pimples -- a popular alternative to using a bloodstained cloth -- she didn't specify that only egg whites could be used and Mary Grace used a scrambled egg. While on her way to get a banana leaf, Mary Grace accidentally stepped on a rotting banana peel, while the banana leaf she sat on was torn.

Now each month during her menstruation, Mary Grace bleeds heavily, gets a bad scent and a pimpled face. And because her mother didn't prod her to perform any household chores when she first had her period, Mary Grace also gets lethargic during that time. In contrast, Jocelyn doesn't suffer from any of these problems.

Looking back, both girls agree that the experience was just plain disgusting. But Jocelyn admits being glad to have done it, otherwise, she would have ended up like Mary Grace. Even Mary Grace would do the rituals -- with all their distastefulness - all over again since they seem to make futures menstruations less painful.

"My daughter will never have my experience," says a determined Mary Grace. "And I'll make sure she will do it the right way," she adds.


Gina Mission, who lives in the Philippines, writes for CyberDyaryo (www.codewan.com.ph/CyberDyaryo), an on-line newsmagazine for civil society. She has been writing about women's issues for several years.