It’s often discussed in hushed voices behind closed doors and locked windows. Boys are urged to explore, giggle and often pass sarcastic comments when the topic comes up, while girls are taught to avoid uttering the word openly in public. ‘Menstruation’ or ‘periods’, a quite naturally occurring process, is thus marred by appalling misconception and disturbing superstitions .Yes, women ‘bleed’ for six-seven days every month, but in a country like India the physical pain that they have to undergo during the cycle is surpassed by the mental turmoil created by the society.
A petition going rounds on the popular social media platform ‘change.org’ discusses the experience of a teenager from Jharkhand, Fulmoni, who thought that a leech had entered her body, when she had her first periods. Meanwhile, an article published by NBC News on menstrual taboos in India, shares the story of a young girl, who had the shock of her life when she saw red stains on her dress and had the least idea what it was. As alarming as the incidents sound, the tales are similar to that of hundreds of girls who are unaware of menstruation or menstrual hygiene and are often subjected to discriminatory practices.
In a country like India, which is still deeply-rooted in superstitions, menstruating girls and women are considered ‘impure’ and are barred from entering temples, touching food, are asked to stay in a separate room within the house or at times made to stay outside the house until the menstrual cycle is over. The discrimination often travels beyond their homes to their classrooms where menstruating girls are seated separately from their classmates.
Interestingly, in some rural as well as urban areas of the nation, a girl undergoing her first periods is also turned into an object of adoration and a reason for celebration. Grand functions are organized by family members to observe the ‘first periods’, new clothes are distributed and feasts are arranged for guests, just like during a wedding or festive event.
While such discriminations and celebrations thrive in the country, a major chunk of teenage girls continue to grow unaware of menstrual hygiene and proper healthcare practices. The first step towards creating a difference has to do a lot in changing mindsets, and that includes teaching young girls and adults alike to view menstruation as a natural process and not as an impure bodily function. This can be achieved only through continuous awareness programmes and strong and effective education right from the grass roots levels.
Priti Mahara, the Director of Policy Research and Advocacy at CRY – Child Rights and You opines that, “The adolescent age is the period when health reserves are built, foundation is laid and well-being may be either fostered or compromised. As a society, we do little to prepare adolescents to accept and embrace the changes which are inevitable, often resulting in awkwardness about their bodies. These changes often dominate their inner self identity and self esteem and also at the same time become a cause for anxiety. The social taboos, myths and misconceptions related to menstruation only increase their anxiety and awkwardness.
In the second step, girls and women should be given access to quality hygienic absorbents and clean sanitary napkins that can be bought at affordable rates. In many parts of the country, women still resort to reusable clothes during their periods as either the sanitary napkins are too expensive or they lack access to it as the medical stores would be quite far from their homes.
A survey recently published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that 43 percent of Indian women do not have access to sanitary essentials at the beginning of periods while 36 percent felt uncomfortable while buying pads when there were other customers around them. Similarly, the National Family Health Survey report of 2015-16 shows the state-wide data on access to hygiene protection among young girls between the age group of 15 and 24. While Tamil Nadu topped the chart with a figure of 90, it was revealed that only nearly 30 percent of women in Bihar had access to safe and hygiene menstrual absorbents.
In this regard, several states have launched projects to ensure that sanitary napkins are more accessible to women and girls. Tamil Nadu has setup pad vending machines in schools, Maharashtra has launched a scheme to provide pads at Rs. 5. Meanwhile, the ‘She Pad’ project of the Kerala government to provide storage space and incinerator for sanitary napkins has also garnered much attention. Though launched with much fanfare, the holistic success of these initiatives and how far they are reaching out to the beneficiaries need to be inspected.
As Priti suggests, “Life skill education and reproductive health sessions with girls are very important and reaching out to them with adequate information will empower them and help in challenging the deeply seated societal norms which brings in lot of strong emotions of shame and guilt. The irony is only one in every 2 child between 15-18 years is studying in India and only one in every three school going child in the country finish class 12th at an appropriate age. Hence a huge population of girls is out of school and it is very important to reach to them in the communities or spaces available around them.”
While menstrual hygiene and school drop-out rates of girls are often co-related, provision of sanitary napkins or vending machines alone will not drive away the problem or reduce the drop-out rates. Schools need to have proper infrastructural facilities and clean toilets where the girls and female teachers can change their pads safely. The bathrooms should also be equipped with proper doors and locks, electric lights and round-the-clock water connectivity.
A complete understanding of menstrual hygiene also includes a healthy discussion on the topic at both societal and household levels. How many of us have often laughed or cringed during biology classes when the subject of menstruation is discussed, or how many of us have witnessed husbands refusing to buys sanitary napkins for their wives? Such awkward and embarrassing feelings mushroom due to lack of proper information on menstruation. To ensure the same, more priority should be set on co-education classes where possibility of interactions between girls and boys is more, and regular sessions on reproductive and sexual health should be organized. These will surely bear fruitful results to de-load the burden of myth and misconception related to menstruation. An open discussion on menstruation should be encouraged in schools as well as at homes. Teachers should make sure that the subject is explained in-depth in class, and back home parents should teach their children to view menstruation just like any other bodily change.
By Ambika Raja
The author is a Virtual Volunteer with CRY, working from Kochi and this story was originally published here