The pitch goes a notch lower as whispers and hushed voices take over. It’s as if they know even the walls have ears. Euphemisms colour the conversation, lest god forbid, someone should find out they are bleeding red. This He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named treatment of menstruation is intersectional with health and the implications of such social norms could make one shudder.
India exemplifies the absolute lack of relation between educational status and menstrual taboos. For a girl on her period, the family becomes a microcosm of exploding discrimination. Don’t touch the utensils, don’t enter the temple, don’t even enter the house; don’t do anything the patriarchal legacy would expect from a girl child. The more concerning acts are the practice of outhouse-living and lavatory exclusion in some communities. The bodies of menstruating women are seen as harbours of impurity. They are removed entirely from the house and made to live in a shed under all weather conditions with lesser supplies than an under-prepared camp-site. In others, menstruating women and girls are banned from using the same bathing space as their non-menstruating family members. How many families can afford two bathrooms to honour this ritual and ensure hygiene during periods? Actually, how many families can even afford one?
One of the biggest causes of infection and disease during periods are the products used to manage them. For the most socially marginalised section of females and their menstrual needs, archaic customs rule their world. Women who use dry leaves, sawdust among other things, are at the risk of nasty bacterial and fungal growths. They also possess less-to-no knowledge and awareness about menstrual health, safe products and treatment of diseases. But that does not mean that they all need sanitary pads.
Granted that only 12% of menstruating Indian women have access to sanitary napkins. But what is so great about them anyway? The political economy of sanitary pads is in direct conflict with the traditional Indian methods and the GDP of the country. Modern, rampant advertising and liberal thought about rural backwardness tips the scales in favour of sanitary napkins. But as research from the ground shows, rural Indian women prefer cloth pads, and for more reasons than one. They face a fraction of the recurring cost of sanitary pads, they are environment-friendly and women experience lesser instances of rash and irritation. Some even simply enjoy the fact that they don’t have to interact with a male seller to purchase them and face socially-induced stigma. For those women further away from modernisation, using nothing is the way to go. They prefer to let the blood flow like it was meant to and occasionally wipe it off to stay comfortable.
Where the graph is changing is among the school-going girls and women in rural India that exercise some semblance of movement autonomy. They are switching to sanitary napkins for less hassle and ease of disposal. Where they lose out, though, is the increasing cost and improper knowledge about the optimum use of sanitary pads. They keep them on long enough to become perfect beds for infections.
The question then is that what is the priority when talking about menstruation and Indian women? Is it the agenda to increase sales of sanitary pads under the guise of rescuing ignorant rural women? Or is it the provision of a safe, healthy product, no matter what that product is? As more and more urban women are turning to cloth pads that are adapted to their needs, the world before and beyond sanitary pads is worth a deeper look.
The idea is to not treat periods as the white man’s burden and start civilising menses with revolutionary western means. Aping the west has backfired for the country by historical proportions, case in point being the various trickle-down health welfare schemes that haven’t seen beyond second-tier cities. There is no all-purpose ready remedy. Targeted interventions catering to the communities’ felt-needs serve as a better method of tackling downstream causes. For communities that have conventional social-norms, strategies need to accommodate them and promote acceptable and safe products. If history is any proof, forcing pads down their throats will backfire, just like mass sterilisations did.