How many times have you heard the comment, “Oh, she must be on her period”?
Even just once is beyond annoying. Often society (especially men) calls out women for being on their period for being in an unpleasant mood. (Sorry guys, but women usually don’t make these comments to other women.)
What response have you heard to this comment? “Lighten up, I’m only joking” might sound familiar. But periods are no joke and can have serious consequences, especially for girls and women in developing countries.
Periods can still carry a stigma, leaving girls and women ashamed and unable to carry on with their daily lives in some parts of the world. Whether a woman “is on her period” or not, linking menstruating to an irritable mood has systematically perpetuated stigmas around period.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Every woman in the history of humanity has or had a period. Each month, her uterus sheds its lining, sending blood flowing out through her vagina (unless she’s pregnant, in which case she gets a lengthy reprieve). This process is as natural as eating, drinking and sleeping, and it’s beautiful too: There’s no human race without it. Yet most of us loathe talking about it.
The silence around menstruation is so culturally ingrained that despite living in a home without restrictions, around me, I saw innumerable examples that silenced me. Extended family firmly objected to girls visiting religious places during their period, for fear of hampering the ‘purity’ of the place. We were routinely told to wear black pants to “avoid embarrassment.” There was nothing worse than the world knowing you bled!
I had with me, Ms. Iravati Ray, a friend of mine from my college. I interviewed her with reference to the above topic and there goes her answers.
Sayan: You have heard about menstrual taboos in different countries like Nepal, India and Kenya. Considering that it is a problem which affects girls and women in several developing countries, what makes the problem magnify in India?
Iravati: In India women are not allowed to do any religious customs during menstruation. This is absolutely weird. People say that women are “impure” during this period. This makes the women also shy away from many events.
Sayan: What is being done in INDIA to raise awareness for this matter?
Iravati: I heard that University of Calcutta is going to install a sanitary napkin machine in each of its campus. If it is brought into effect then it would benefit the students.
Sayan: ANY PERSONAL INCIDENT WHICH YOU LIKE TO SHARE?
Sayan: YOUR STATEMENT IF SOMEONE SAYS THINGS LIKE which you mentioned as “Weird”??
Iravati: You are born out of the uterus of a woman surrounded by the wall to protect you, which you are calling impure. So you should be the one who is impure
Iravati: You were there for 9 months
Sayan: What is the next step for Breaking Menstrual Taboos? According to you??
Iravati: The machines that are proposed to be installed by CU should be installed in the rural areas and the women there should be educated about their uses and benefit
Sayan: YOU, BEING A FEMALE, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO TELL THE PEOPLE WHO MAKES A BIG ISSUE OUT THIS TABOO?
Iravati: The same thing I said before. If they think it to be a taboo then they should not show their faces to the outside world, because they were born out of that taboo.
Sayan: And a last one
“There is a mindset that women are impure especially during her periods. The most disturbing thing is women themselves believe that. I know women who don’t enter mandirs in their own homes,”
Considering the above statement, do you feel are women themselves are to be blamed for the taboos?
Iravati: Yes they are to be blamed twice as much as the men. They are the ones who let men think continuously for centuries that they are impure. They are the ones who enjoy being housewives. They are the ones who enjoy getting abused by their husbands because they have no way out. They are not self independent. They like to be dependent. That is their problem
After listening to her, I have something to tell you.
Twenty-year old Sara was guiding me through Kolkata’s Khidderpore slum area. After two days of heavy rain, this locality, with around 50 huts, saw some sunlight. I walked behind her cautiously, trying to avoid the sludge that the rains had left behind. As I walked through those lanes, I noticed that I could barely spread my arms out. That was the distance between two inhabitants where Sara lived with her family.
We finally reached the spot where we were headed to. It was there. But we had to wait for a few more minutes before we could see it clearly. A half-naked older man and a few young boys were blocking our view. Sara and I weren’t the only ones waiting. Five other women awaited their turn, while the men carried on with their business. The man and the young boys were cleaning themselves at one of only two bore wells that these slum dwellers can have access to in this metropolitan city.
“This is where we come to wash it,” she said, lowering her voice. “Of course, when they are not around,” she added, indicating towards the men.
“We obviously have to wait for them to finish with their cleaning, before we clean these cloths, and doing this is embarrassing, so obviously we do it when they are not around.”
After we visited the bore wells, she took me to her house. Despite being only five feet two inches tall, I had to watch my head as I entered her makeshift home. The total area of this house was only slightly bigger than a Tata Nano, the world’s smallest family car. In this space, she and her husband along with her three sons had their kitchen, toilet, bathroom and bedroom.
Once we entered, she moved to the dingiest corner of the room. As I inched closer, I could see it was also the murkiest corner of the house, covered by a dirty plastic sheet for a door. Inside this area was a string, hanging to the sheets, pointing to which Sara said, “This is where I put it to dry.”
She was talking about the used sanitary cloth which she discretely washes at the bore well we visited a few minutes ago. I pointed out to her and said that there is no sunlight in that dingy corner. “How would the cloth dry?” I asked.
In a matter-of-fact manner, she looked at me and said, “It’s a used sanitary cloth. How can we dry it outside? This is how we all do it. We find a corner in the house, where the others can’t see, and then dry them.”
Up to 88 percent of girls wash and reuse cotton cloth instead of using disposable pads. Often this is done without soap and with unclean water. Social taboos force them to dry the cloth indoors, away from sunlight and open air. As a result, the cloth is not sanitized or disinfected.
Due to poor access to reliable products, women resort to unhygienic practices to manage their periods. This has severe health implications.
Around 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are believed to be caused by poor menstrual hygiene.
This can have an impact on education for young women. A study says around 23 percent of girls aged 12 to 18 drop out of school because of inadequate protection once their periods start.
That’s where a clutch of start-ups have boldly stepped in.
Alongside the start-ups, others are pushing to dismantle the taboo by talking about periods. Menstrupedia, a website and comic book started by Aditi Gupta, helps young girls learn about periods in a fun way.
With the spread of more information and greater availability, the sanitary pads market is expected to grow five times to US$3 billion in India by 2025.
Some of the change will have to spring from the towns. “We intend to make tier two and three cities the manufacturing hubs from where our products can reach more interior rural locations,” says Suhani of Saral Designs.
Clearly, the key to India’s period revolution lies in rural areas and that is where the start-ups will ultimately have to go. Muruganantham’s machines have reached some of the most underdeveloped areas such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. By his estimate, each of his machines has been converting 3,000 women to pad usage.
Our feeling is Indian women are open to breaking the taboo and myths around menstruation. In the past months, the sale of tampons has increased.
Women are comfortable talking about their concerns once they know their issues will be handled well which is a very positive change
After all, who wouldn’t want a stab at dignity?
let’s join hands to put an end to this.
university of calcutta