The human race, as we know it, aspires to achieve limitless success, and with pride and respect. Then, suddenly, a question pops in my mind. Is it being done without hurting someone’s dignity? The answer is no. And here’s why.
While reasons are numerous, I feel like we need to raise a basic but necessary concern. Our society has been constantly endorsing gender-based violence, in the form of partial treatment, and discrimination, on a large scale, under the respectable banner of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’. All my life, growing up in India, I have seen and heard about rigid and brutal stands on menstruation. As a human being and as a biologist it’s shameful to acknowledge such a natural phenomenon being labelled as a taboo, without any scientific backing. It openly excludes women from many aspects of socio-cultural life.
This has its impact on the psychological state of young girls and women. Some of the cultural connotations related to menstruation are avoiding certain food items, sitting in a separate place, not being allowed into the kitchen, prohibiting their entry to any religious place, restriction on domestic duties, among others. In India, according to an article published in the Hindu 23% “girls drop out of school when they reach puberty; this is in part because schools lack gender-segregated toilets. Women frequently miss work because they have no place to change the cloths or napkins they use. In Bangladesh, most employed women miss about six days of work each month, stifling productivity and advancement.” And, half of the girls aged 14 to 17, in Karachi, Pakistan, “knew nothing about menstruation and were scared of their periods, believing they were ill or dying.” In Nepal, because of a particular Hindu tradition, women have to live separately in places like a cow shed, or a hut.
Menstrual blood is a biochemical fluid and not a sinful result of an individual’s deeds, as is believed by many. Science stands by it, meanwhile, there is no logic backing the claims that menstruation can have harmful reactions on women and those around them.
It makes no sense for a society to pose it as a nightmare and make it a legitimate tool for hate and discrimination. Even the ruling political classes’ approach towards this stigma is no good. Recently, the Finance Ministry taxed sanitary napkins 12% under the Goods and Service Tax (GST). Is this an acceptable decision? Ritualistic accessories like pooja items, sindoor (vermilion), and bangles are exempted from tax but a necessity like sanitary pads are chargeable. Waah! This shows the hollow, ignorant attitude of the Government of India for whom everything is important, except women’s health. In a country where 70% of the female population cannot afford sanitary napkins, the ruling government continues to enrich its anti-women stand.
The slogan of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ insists that this nation-state is a woman. At one side electorally powerful sycophants recite this everywhere and force others to follow the suit and on the other hand, their they are clueless when it comes to understanding the needs of women and designing their policies around them. So this sloganeering makes little sense to me, as it fails women on all counts—social acceptance, moral upliftment and inclusive social growth. Why should I not question the credibility of the so-called society and government which proudly boasts about ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ (inclusive growth)?
It is a conquerable task. The first and foremost thing we can do is raise awareness among adolescent girls on subjects of menstrual health and hygiene. As this Akvopedia article titled Menstrual Hygiene Toolkit states, “Young girls often grow up with limited knowledge of menstruation because their mothers and other women shy away from discussing the issues with them. Adult women may themselves not be aware of the biological facts or hygienic practices, so instead, they pass on cultural taboos and restrictions to be observed. Men typically know even less, but it is important for them to understand menstruation so they can support their wives, daughters, mothers, students, employees, and peers”. There is also a need to spread awareness among the school teachers regarding menstruation.
To overcome this moral crisis we need to follow this chronology. Social education on menstruation coupled with awareness programmes can definitely empower women. An educational institution can make a difference in perceptions, across gender. A special interactive session on menstruation between students and medical experts can help change the mindset of people. In this aspect, Kerala’s Left Front government made great progress by installing Sanitary Napkin Vending Machine in every school. It is a revolutionary step which openly accepts a biological process with a broad mind and vision and stands by the dignity of girls. It deserves emphasis and replication by all elected governments.
It is high time we grew unconditional empathy and compassion for women and began understanding their plight. It is necessary for the growth of any society. Which is why I would like to end with an optimistic quote by Dr B.R. Ambedkar which says, “I measure the progress of the society by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”