Imagine you’re a 12-year-old girl. Or 11, or 10, or even nine. Let’s not be very fussy and specific about the age. You’re a young girl who may or may not have heard the word ‘prepubescent’. If you have, you probably do not know what it means, but you have a vague idea that it has to do with ‘growing up’. You go to school, play with your friends, try to sit with the elder girls during their conversations because they seem so cool, but they shoo you away sometimes. They tell you that they are talking about ‘grown up stuff’ which you won’t understand. Then one fine day, you find bloodstains on your underwear and don’t know how to react, or what to expect. Suddenly, you have grown up.
This is the story of most girls in our country. In fact, we have manufactured and perfected a culture of silence on taboo subjects like menstruation and sex to such an extent, that until a young girl has her first period she has no idea about the changes her body is about to undergo. Why are we so ashamed of talking about it? Why is it that the neighbourhood chemist, from whom your father buys sanitary napkins and not you (the scandal!), wraps it in newspaper and then puts a black polyethene on it before handing it over? Is it radioactive? Does the sight of it drive people to violence or madness? Will it sprout tiny legs and run away if not imprisoned in such a manner?
For me, the moment of truth – the moment when the hilarity of the situation became so obvious that it overpowered everything else – came while reading a flyer from the residents association of the building I was living in, in Bengaluru. The flyer was about compulsory segregation of garbage by residents prior to collection. Alongside gems like “empty packets of milk must be washed, dried and then only put in the appropriate bin”, it had instructions on how to wrap a used sanitary napkin. All pads had to be neatly folded in newspaper, and marked with a large X in red colour. Drawn for your viewing pleasure, so you know what lies hidden inside.
I had a fleeting vision, I saw myself turning into an entrepreneur, starting a cottage industry which made packets out of recycled newspaper and drew large crosses in red on all sides, saving the environment, providing employment, and becoming famous – all in service of the culture of silence. Then laughter drowned it all out.
In an urban set-up, the culture of silence may appear to be harmless. After all, whether marked with red crosses or not, sanitary napkins are available in abundance and disposing them isn’t much trouble. We may snigger at the idea of giving working women two extra days of leave per month and complain about it the way we have been complaining about maternity leaves and its detrimental effect on an organization’s performance. We may also attribute the bad temper of a woman to the universal excuse ‘it’s that time of the month’. We may be more concerned about having free Wi-Fi in our railway stations and bus stands than clean, functioning toilets. Trivializing gender issues has been our tried and tested response for a long time and it seems to work rather well.
In rural areas, the culture of silence is grim, stark and without a shred of benevolence. Menstruating women are forced to live in segregation. They are not allowed to touch the common sources of food and water. They are not allowed to enter places of worship, and sometimes, even schools and other public places. All this builds up and contributes to the perpetuation of a belief that menstruation is ashuddha — unclean, something to be ashamed of.
It is evident to any observer that hardly any thought has gone into tackling these superstitions, or into providing facilities that would enable improvement. Civic amenities are practically non-existent. Women and men are forced to bathe and defecate in the open. It is estimated that nearly 70% of households in India do not have access to toilets, and almost 60% of the population defecates in the open. What are the consequences? More often than not, the community pond water is used for bathing, drinking, cooking and other household chores. In the bottom of the same pond, you might find a congregation of used sanitary pads. Needless to say, quality of water is abysmal.
Availability of clean water is going down every year. Outside municipality limits, systems of garbage disposal are simply non-existent. In addition, waste from the urban areas is dumped into nearby rural areas. Swacchta (cleanliness) is not just a matter of dusting clean the public areas. Sanitation is a much larger idea which requires access to clean water. Building toilets and bathrooms will have very little impact unless there are proper water supply and drainage systems in place. Providing sanitary napkins at a subsidised cost for schoolgirls will not help unless there is a system in place for proper disposal.
Cloth pads have continued to be in use in rural areas because they are recyclable. This, at once, solves the problem of cost and disposal. A great deal of work is being done in this area. However, the culture of silence does not disappear by use of better or cheaper or more eco-friendly pads. The bigger issue at hand is that of gender equality. And this is where it gets really tricky. We live in a society where rape is dismissed as the ‘natural urge’ of boys and men, but natural biological processes like menstruation and pregnancy get inextricably linked to notions of honour and decency. Not the woman’s, mind you. Honour of the family. Honour of the men of the family.
What we need is a move towards understanding and openness. Agencies that provide nail polish to school going girls for free but charge for sanitary napkins should reconsider what is really important and what isn’t. Instead of levying tax on sanitary napkins, perhaps it’s time we learnt that it is not a luxury and but a basic requirement.
This is not just a question of law, subsidies, taxes, and government action or lack thereof. We have to imbibe and impart knowledge about what menstruation actually is. We have to stop whispering about it. We have to work together towards improving sanitation for both men and women in urban and rural areas. Above all, individually and collectively, we have to foster and nurture an atmosphere where a little girl does not have to be shocked and frightened of bloodstains, where a young woman can walk into a chemist shop and ask for sanitary pads without being sniggered at, and where women are not made to feel ashamed of being women.