Back in college days, absence or delays of friends and class mates was explained with the single sentence – ‘She is down’ followed by sympathetic comments. In my mother tongue periods or menstruation is ‘ga beya howa’ which roughly translates to being physically unwell. These very nomenclatures connote that a biological fact that happens every month renders a woman less capable. An absolute silence around this issue leaves women with no scope to negotiate with mobility during those days. They are left with making all kind of excuses.
The silence around this issue is further re-entrenched by deep rooted taboos that surround menstruation. Women across class face all kinds of discrimination for those days. Starting from being ostracized for those days, their mobility is restricted, they are isolated and alienated in their own homes. Menstrual blood might be celebrated as the source of the power of life, but set rituals ensure that women have no say in how she conducts herself during that particular period. Periods are never personal or merely biological but social as well.
While mothers caution their daughters about what to expect when they start menstruating, normal discussions on menstruation is still difficult and rarely common even among women. It is limited to cramps and the need for precautions. Rarely does one talk about menstrual hygiene or the very need of it. A need to demystify menstruation is a must precedent to ensuring Menstrual Hygiene Management is implemented. A hush hush attitude to periods has made it difficult. An UNESCO report stated that one in ten girls miss school during their menstrual cycle. By this calculation, they miss around twenty percent of their school days. The common reasons are no separate toilets for girl students, no water, no scope for disposal of sanitary napkins etc.
In 2015, the Government of India launched National Guidelines on Menstrual Hygiene Management to respond to nearly 113 million adolescent girls at the risk of dropping out of schools due to start of menarche (their first period). One of the surveys that informed the National Guidelines found that out of 14724 government schools, only 53% had a separate and usable girls’ toilet. In addition 132 million households reported not having a toilet. One can only imagine the ordeal that the women in these households face during their menstruation.
Surveys show that a meager 12% women have access to sanitary pads. While government launched certain policies to provide low cost sanitary napkins, lack of awareness and shame attached to menstruation makes women wary of reaching out to such benefits. Even the 12% women who regularly use Sanitary Napkins find themselves in awkward position while purchasing them. With an astounding silence on menstrual hygiene, the already marginalized voice of women is further scuttled.
This taboo surrounding menstruation has also left any discussion on women reproductive health limited to hospitals and health centres. According to Water Aids’ Menstrual Hygiene Matters report around 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by negligent menstrual hygiene. Women continue to put their health, livelihood and dignity at risk. Taboos render menstruation as a shameful matter and has made any discussion on menstrual health impossible. Almost 39% of girls in India use just water, no soap for washing their menstrual protection. Many use cloth pads but in some cases wood shavings, dried leaves, hay or plastic is also used. A further 20% reported that they do not have access to a toilet while menstruating. What is more disturbing is that absolute silence on menstruation have pushed menstrual hygiene to one of the lowest rungs of government priority.
Silence about menstruation is very much ingrained. The taboo of sexual segregation during menstruation has a negative impact because girls in rural area start dropping out of schools when they start menstruating. The schools are rarely under pressure to provide water, clean and separate toilets and the opportunity to dispose Sanitary napkins.
According to 2011 census, 89% of India’s rural population have no toilets. The rags used in lieu of sanitary pads may predispose these women to various reproductive tract infections because it is difficult for them to keep these used rags clean and free of harmful bacteria. Many organisations like Goonj is trying to make cheap, affordable sanitary napkins for women. Government has also introduced a policy of providing cheap pads through ASHA workers. However women should be made aware of the risks of using cloth rags and encouraged to access these cheap disposable sanitary napkins.
When I was in school, it was always about finding excuses to explain absence from class. It was rarely a choice as at times there would be no running water in toilets. Or it would be impossible to dispose used sanitary napkins. But it was only in College and later in my University, awareness and sensitization convinced me that there is no need to give excuse about a natural phenomena. Cramps and dysmennorrhea should be talked about as medical problems and not the repentance of some sin women might have committed in earlier births.
Interestingly in my own state of Assam, the menstruation of Goddess Kamakhya is celebrated. While prayer for three days is stopped at the temple, the menstruating goddess is very much revered. The Ambubachi Mela held in Guwahati during that period marks a time when mother earth is also menstruating. It is linked with fertility of earth and hence celebrated. The menarche of young girls is also celebrated with a function akin to a mini wedding. But at the same time menstruating women are not allowed in the Kamakhya temple and menstruation taboos are rather commonplace in the state. Segregation and isolation during periods is practised in families across classes and communities. It is high time, menstruation is talked of in normal tones and menstrual hygiene becomes a part of the larger discourse on women’s health. Or else archaic superstitions will continue to deny women access to menstrual hygiene and continue to face health hazards.
The first step towards dismantling menstruation taboos is creating atmospheres where women can freely talk about periods. During the Pads Against Sexism campaign a large number of people along with academic institutions’ administration was openly hostile to the students who tried to spread awareness against menstruation taboos. Normalising talks about periods, not reducing it to something merely sexual, is the first step towards sensitization. This should be followed by awareness programmes about the hazards of lack of menstrual hygiene along with present government policies of providing cheap sanitary napkins. Government must also put in place some regulatory mechanism to see to it that the benefits of the policies reach the real beneficiaries. Otherwise women will continue being ‘Down’ for those five days in every month and the society will continue letting them down by clinging to regressive irrational patriarchal rituals which dehumanizes women.