Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka

Use of Traditional Puberty Rituals Declines as Sri Lankan Mothers, Daughters Become Better-Educated


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Sri Lanka

Puberty traditions for girls are declining in Sri Lanka as families adopt a modern way of life. These traditions – including seclusion during menstruation, ritual bathing, restrictive diets and lavish parties – have lost their meaning to today’s literate young women.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA  ̶  When her 10-year-old daughter Tashya had her first menstrual period in September 2014, Taniya Fernando was in a panic, she says. Confused about the traditional rites to mark the start of puberty, she received conflicting feedback from her family.

“My mother-in-law said rituals were outdated and not necessary,” says Fernando, 36, of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. Fernando’s mother, however, advised her to honor their customs.

Each distinct community in Sri Lanka follows a variation of a few basic puberty customs: keeping the girl in isolation from the community for a few days, as she is considered impure; bathing rituals, which symbolize purification; and a celebration to mark the girl’s passage into womanhood. In the celebration, the girl is traditionally given new and heirloom items of gold jewelry that become part of her dowry.

Families used to observe these customs to safeguard girls from evil spirits and diseases. (Girls were believed to be especially vulnerable to infection during their first menstrual periods.)

Following her mother’s advice, Fernando visited an astrologer to determine the most auspicious times to conduct the rituals. Throughout Tashya’s first period, Fernando kept her secluded at home and enforced a strict diet that excluded meat, fish and fried foods.

At the date and time specified by the astrologer, Fernando ritually purified her daughter, bathing her with water, crushed herbs and flowers poured from a clay pot. The family celebrated with a simple breakfast of traditional Sri Lankan food, Fernando says. Tashya did not have a lavish party, and she was given no gold jewelry.

Fernando, who runs a language school in Nugegoda, a suburb of Colombo, carried out the traditional puberty rites because it was expected of her, she says. But she did not understand their significance. Her daughter is also perplexed by the customs.

“I was given eggs almost every day, with only vegetables,” says Tashya, now 11. “After the bath, I had to break a coconut. Though I tried several times, it never broke! I don’t understand the reason behind these customs.”

If Fernando had another daughter, she would probably not perform the rituals again, she says. She believes the customs will soon die out.

Fernando is unsure if girls in modern-day Sri Lanka need the protection of the traditional puberty rituals, as they are more knowledgeable about sexuality than previous generations.

“I doubt that these rituals will even be needed in a few years,” she says. “Girls need privacy, without any fanfare.”

In Sri Lanka, puberty rituals are customarily performed as a rite of passage when a girl has her first menstrual period. Traditionally, these practices have been meant to safeguard young women’s virginity and ensure their proper nutrition, cultural experts say.

Use of these rituals has diminished in recent decades. Urban families question the need for puberty rituals, which customarily include expensive parties and gifts, in a modernizing country.

All of Sri Lanka’s many communities regard puberty as a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood, says Gunaseeli Amaranayake, a holistic physician in the Ayurvedic tradition who advises Colombo families on puberty rituals. While some puberty rituals are used only by particular tribal groups, others are common to all communities.

“In Sri Lanka, it is a highly auspicious period in the life of a girl child,” Amaranayake says.

Many of Amaranayake’s regular patients seek her advice when their daughters and granddaughters reach puberty. She advises them on the rituals and a healthy diet. She also refers them to an astrologer who can establish auspicious times for the rituals.

Over the past 25 years, Amaranayake has seen a gradual decline in such queries from her urban patients, she says.

As Sri Lankan women become more educated and independent, they and their daughters forgo the traditional rituals, she says.

The literacy rate among Sri Lankan women has more than doubled over the past 70 years.

In 1946, less than 44 percent of Sri Lankan women were literate. By 2012, nearly 95 percent were literate.

Better-educated young women are apt to shun puberty rituals, says Jezima Ismail, commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and co-coordinator of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum.

The decline in customs began around the late 1970s, says Ismail, a onetime principal of a girls school.

“Education has moved forward, and sex education has replaced customs,” Ismail says. “It is more significant to educate rather than keep customs as they are.”

Traditionally, puberty rituals informed the community that a young girl was available for marriage, she says. Now that young men and women interact more freely, the rituals have become an embarrassment to girls.

Sarah Sadique, of Colombo, was 12 when she entered puberty in 1977. Now a college-educated preschool teacher, she is grateful that her parents didn’t follow any rituals. A Muslim, she simply began wearing a head scarf.

When her daughter, Amana, entered puberty in 2004, Sadique and her husband chose to forego traditional rituals. Instead, they celebrated the event by going out to dinner together.

“This is only one step in the cycle of a girl child,” Sadique, 49, says. “It’s simply a part of life. Rituals to celebrate these occasions are unnecessary.”

She chose to invest in her daughter’s education instead of spending money on a large party or expensive presents because education will dispel mythological beliefs, she says.

A rite-of-passage party, usually called a puberty ceremony in English, costs a family at least 35,000 rupees ($265), not counting gifts. Each family decides how lavish to make its ritual event.

Girls sometimes find the traditional rituals distressing.

Shehani Sethungamudali, 18, was 10 years old when she had her first period. Now a student in business management in Colombo, Sethungamudali says she was shocked and confused by all the myths circulating about puberty rituals.

Families today should learn to balance tradition with the rights and expectations of young women, she says.

“Tradition should be maintained without restrictions and the loss of freedom,” Sethungamudali says. “The Sri Lankan culture is such that girls are supposed to be always under the vigilance of parents. This should change with modernization, as it is really frustrating.”

Ramya Dhevi Janarth, a dietitian at a private health care center in Colombo, disagrees. Puberty rituals play an important role in keeping girls healthy, she says.

“Our ancestors knowingly or unknowingly have been doing the right thing,” Janarth says.

Keeping girls in their homes and away from men during their first periods protected them from diseases, she says. The food traditionally served in the rituals, high in protein and vitamins, was meant to strengthen the reproductive system.

Ismail believes traditional herbal baths and massages with hot compresses strengthened girls’ reproductive health.

“It’s a pity that we are losing these customs which helped to develop a woman’s body for childbirth,” she says.

The rituals also protected young women socially, Ismail says.

“In the past, a girl remained at home, as the family honor was at stake and she was subjected to supervision,” she says. “It was everybody’s responsibility to create a traditional woman with virtuous qualities. Virginity was the greatest prize, as the family status depended on the virtue of a girl.”

But Sethungamudali, the Colombo college student, says she will never observe traditional puberty rituals if she has a daughter.

“I would prefer to educate my children by giving them information,” she says.