In Rural Rajasthan, Period Shaming Is Putting Young Girls’ Health At Risk

By Lea Goelnitz and Monalisa Padhee:

As in many parts of India and other countries, in rural Rajasthan the myth that menstruation makes a woman impure persists strongly.

With much shame associated with periods, girls tend to use unhygienic practices such as drying the cloth pad and undergarments in a tiny corner of the room, storing the pads in a filthy place or using a sanitary pad for longer hours than recommended. Explaining to them that bleeding every month is a natural process like any other bodily process is slowly bringing behavioural changes.

Apart from health-related complications that can be caused by wrong information, it is also crushing girls’ confidence, when they think their bodies are ‘dirty’ and associated with something bad.

Monalisa Padhee is fighting the stigma of menstruation in rural Rajasthan. Almost a year ago, she started working on a curriculum to address myths about menstruation and the teaching of medical facts and anatomy with fun and interaction as a Youth for India Fellow.

menstruationDuring Monalisa’s initial interaction with girls and women from more than 10 villages in the Ajmer district, it was very evident that there was minimal knowledge on menstruation. She was not surprised considering there is very little conversation on these issues even in very open platforms.

“However, I was pained to see so much shame associated with periods. There are many myths and misinformation among the girls, which lead to inappropriate practices and affect women’s health,” Monalisa explained. As the stigma associated with menstruation is reinforcing the lower status of women in India, Monalisa decided to work on spreading awareness on menstrual and reproductive education. “Women and girls should feel free to do what they want. Periods should not hold them back.”

The recent Ph.D. graduate started the developing the session ‘Let’s talk about period without whispers’. “At the beginning, there was reluctance in the community. The women were very shy and never felt a need to attend the awareness drive. I along with the community health worker had to go door to door to motivate women to come for the session. The sessions were designed to provide information in an interactive and fun-filled manner. The girls loved the games and this attracted many girls to come for the session.”

In order to have a positive learning experience and to overcome shyness, it was important to use tools that convey this message that menstruation is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. Monalisa and her colleagues developed a puzzle to learn the cycle and they gave the girls comics made by Menstrupedia. Their newest tool is an apron, which shows the female anatomy and the different stages of the menstrual cycle. “Women should feel confident and comfortable to name parts of their anatomy.”

“Being a scientist I strongly believe in the power of experimenting and understanding, hence, I am encouraging the girls to do the same. For example, one very deeply embedded rumour is that pickle goes bad in the hands of a menstruating women. So I asked the girls in my sessions to touch pickles when they have their period and to check if it is going bad.”

Monalisa is happy with the progress so far and is amazed by the girls’ eagerness to learn more. But she is also aware that she has to be careful with tackling myths around menstruation. “My job is not say that what they believe is wrong, but to help them question some of the information they have. Talking about the subject in general is already a big step forward. If you cannot talk about it you will never have access to correct information.” There is now a more open approach to talking about health concerns in general and more women and girls go to seek help at the local health centre.

“I was very surprised to find that even older women could not explain the link between menstruation and reproduction. Rajasthan has a high rate of child marriage and many girls conceive at an early age. During one session a girl told me that she got pregnant early and had to discontinue her studies. She had no information on the menstrual cycle or any knowledge about contraception,” says Monalisa.

“Working with these communities for the past eight months, I am very happy to see the change in attitude of the girls and women. The girls have promised to be the agents of change in their villages and share the information. I was also very pleasantly surprised by the amount of help I received from our male health workers. A true example of ‘He for She’. I am glad that I took my leap of faith to work for the rural communities on issues which are hugely important but largely ignored. I can now proudly say that we together have accomplished to create a platform where we are comfortable to share our experiences, break the silence on issues which are important for healthy lives and empower more women in our communities with knowledge and correct information.”