“I use it once, then wash it. Then I burn it.” Anita is claiming her version of what she believes is the correct ‘menstrual-hygiene’ method to be employed. She is not entirely incorrect. In a world that has capitalised this most basic bodily function (but of course!), Anita lives in a country where the system has failed her on this count. Living in Ragauli village in Chitrakoot district, the materials Anita prefers during her periods (besides cloth) are ash, sand, grass, and even paper.
Like her peers, Anita has been ignored, as have her needs. The Uttar Pradesh government, like its big brother at the Centre, continues to launch policy after policy, and continues to fare miserably when it comes to executing them. Let’s take the distribution of sanitary pads, for instance. The Kishori Shakti Yojna empowers adolescent girls and young women to partake of it – free sanitary pads being one of its central tenets. But, the on-ground realities couldn’t be further away from this. Anita belongs to the 88% of women in our country who do not use sanitary pads during their periods – their unaffordability being one reason for it.
The sheer lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene is another big reason. Rita from Tarun block (Kalyanpur Chhitauna village) and Anshu from Mitanpur village – both in the Faizabad district – share with us a list of physical discomforts they experience during their periods, but neither of them know what exactly happens inside their bodies. “We were always shushed if we asked too many questions about it, even by our own mothers,” Kavita, our digital head, who grew up in Banda, told us.
Pratibha devi from the Bakta Bujurg village tells us, quite unequivocally, that cloth has greater absorption power than sanitary pads. However, she wouldn’t know – she affirms, since she’s never used the latter. Pratibha also re-uses the cloth, “After I’ve washed it, I stuff it inside the almirah.” Once it’s dried, the same cloth waits out its 28-30 days, until it’s fished out again – from the back of the almirah.
The shame that comes handy with this basic bodily function is, arguably, the biggest reason for the continued lack of awareness and use of sanitary pads in most parts of rural and even semi-urban India. Time and again, we hear of large swathes of old saris being cut into square and rectangular pieces for the girls and women of the house – “And this was an activity meant to be a secret. Just like the actual mahavari (period),” a colleague tells us.
Shame is the reason why Anita burns the cloth and Pratibha stuffs it inside the recesses of her cupboard. No man or child should ever be able to see it. Indeed, there should be no visual cues to the very existence of menstruation. The R Balki movie based on Arunachalam Muruganantham, “Pad Man”, which stars Akshay Kumar, also aligns its narrative with the narrative of shame and humiliation that has always been intrinsic to something as normal as getting your periods.
Sangeeta Pandey, the local Asha worker in Chitrakoot, tells us that she often gives lectures on the unhygienic nature of cloth and the spread of infections due to its use. But, it is not really something either she or the local women take seriously. It’s not unlike the lectures on the use of condoms. Both are similar in effect, we say – mostly ineffectual.