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Not Just India, Here’s How Girls Everywhere Are Being Taught To Be Ashamed Of Their Period

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By Rhea Almeida

Note: This article was originally published on Homegrown.

Even the mention of the word ‘period’ publicly in India is enough to make women uncomfortable and men cringe. Perhaps the biggest problem with the conversation around menstruation is that there isn’t one. At least, not a loud or engaging enough one. Only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins, for reasons ranging to lack of economic capabilities, limited access, orthodox customs and an overall lack of menstrual education. Despite efforts of various women-focused NGOs and different groups aiming to create a more open, healthy environment for menstruating women, misconceptions are rampant. A big step forward in the conversation are projects like Menstrupedia – a guide for young menstruating girls in India that’s radically changed the way people are communicating and receiving menstrual information. Biological facts, puberty-related explanations, myths proven false and savvy hygiene tips all packaged in a cute, accessible wrapping – this menstrual manual holds the awareness India needs.

As we begin our own journey towards identifying the problem and tackling it, we realized that this is hardly only an Indian issue. Women across the world suffer from impractical, and sometimes bizarre discrimination purely because of their periods. From Zambia to Japan to Iran, here’s 11 different reasons the world needs to grow up when it comes to the very healthy, very normal bodily function that every woman of age goes through once a month.

Get with the program.

I. In Kenya, girls fashion UNsanitary pads from leaves, rags and even mud

Image Credit: Ji Sub Jeong, Huffington Post

A package of sanitary napkins, even the cheapest kind, is far too expensive for the average girl in Kenya. And so, menstruating girls resort to rags, leaves, newspaper, bits of mattress stuffing or even mud to roughly fashion some sort of protection. Such slip-shod sanitary methods not only leave these girls feeling uncomfortable, they are unsanitary and can cause health problems.

II. Periods are rewarded with isolation and shame in rural Nepal

Image Credit: Ji Sub Jeong, Huffington Post

Although it was outlawed in 2005, remote rural villages in western Nepal continue to follow an inhumane and illogical tradition that discriminates against menstruating women. Known as the Chaupadi Tradition, this practice involves isolating girls while on their period for a week, and segregating them from the rest of society until their time of ‘shame’ is over. Girls and women subjected to this tradition are typically sent to live in a shed where they have minimal protection from the elements, can develop life-threatening illnesses and have little to no human contact. A classic example of society failing women once again.

III. Parts of Japan think that menstruation makes women unsuitable for jobs like Sushi Chef

Image Credit: emiitoillustration

A female sushi chef in Japan is such a rare sighting, it’s almost a myth. As per tradition, women have been excluded from the field specifically because of menstruation. Professional chefs are supposed to have a steady taste in their food, and it is believed that a woman on her period has an imbalance in taste. Turns out, the only real imbalance is in Japan’s society.

IV. Menstruating homeless women in America struggle with sanitation

Women in America that struggle with financial stability are faced with yet another challenge – proper sanitation. Most women’s shelters lack tampons and sanitary pads, since these items are expensive and supporters often don’t think to donate them. And, without access to clean showers, homeless women find it extremely difficult to stay clean and free of infection while menstruating. Serious health problems as a result of economic strife, which can be very expensive to cure – a tragic Catch 22.

V. In Malawi, you can’t even mention menstru-SHH!

Image Credit: Ji Sub Jeong, Huffington Post

Parents in Malawi have an effective way of dealing with their discomfort towards periods – they just pretend it doesn’t exist, simple. Shame surrounds menstruation so extensively, that parents don’t even talk to their kids about it. Young girls, with great difficulty, glean what little information they can from their aunts, who teach them how to fashion sanitary pads from old clothes. Along with these unsanitary tips, girls are given valuable advice – don’t talk to boys while menstruating. How can a woman already uncomfortable during menstruation survive when her biology is such a great social taboo?

VI. Girls in Bolivia believe that improper disposing of pads could cause cancer

For young girls in Bolivia, every month they receive three visitors – their periods, humiliation and shame. Indignity is so ingrained with menstruation that girls are urged, even by teachers, to keep their used sanitary pads far away from the rest of the trash. Defying any scientific logic, traditional beliefs hold that disposing their pads with other garbage could lead to sickness or cancer. And, as if this wasn’t enough, menstruating girls don’t even have proper access to private restrooms.

VII. In parts of India, women aren’t allowed to touch food with their ‘polluting menstrual hands’

Folklore has some Indian girls and women believing that if they handle a pickle while they’re menstruating, it will spoil just by their touch. The social taboo surrounding periods deems it ‘unclean’ and ‘unhygienic’, which even translates into prayer as menstruating women are forbidden from entering temples. But it’s not just the green vegetable they’re admonished to stay away from. Women and girls are also told to avoid cooking anything altogether – don’t want to risk ‘contamination’ at the hands of biology. Although, it is heartening to see that these conceptions are being challenged today, and that too by mainstream media. The sanitary pad producer Whisper’s progressive commercial ‘Touch The Pickle’ tries to tackle this ludicrous fallacy.

VIII. Women in Afghanistan are taught that bathing during your period leads to infertility

Washing your genitals during menstruating can make you infertile? Afghanistan has abandoned scientific practicality with wide-spread misconceptions about periods, which ends up with dire sanitation problems. After searching high and low, we have finally identified the biggest menstrual health hazard – misinformation.

IX. In Iran, menstruation is not just a taboo, it’s a disease

The natural process of menstruation is so hushed up, and information about it is so misguided and false, that 48 percent of girls there think that it’s a disease. Without proper menstrual education, misconceptions and false notions emerge, which can be dangerous. Social stigma driving young girls into serious sanitation and health problems – not to mention mental distress every month during ‘disease’ week. Stomach cramps suddenly seem like a much smaller menstrual problem.

X. Tradition in Zambia dictates that menstruating women aren’t allowed to eat salt

Some areas of Zambia take period-related stigma into the kitchen, with ridiculous food restrictions. In addition to not being allowed to cook, menstruating women are not permitted to even add salt to their meals. These women are subjected to immense psychological anguish at the hands of social stigma, and of course, flavourless food.

XI. Bangladeshi women bury menstrual cloths out of fear of attracting evil spirits

Girls are brought up believing that their biology is a supernatural bane that draws out wickedness. Misconceptions and stigma have led to the point where Bangladeshi women actually bury used menstrual cloths in the ground to ward of any evil spirits that might surround their periods. The biggest evil spirit we see? Backwardness.

About the author: Rhea Almeida is a features writer with Homegrown and is a mass media graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai who lives to travel and explore new things. When she’s not playing with her adorable dog or coming up with clever things to write in her bio, that is.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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