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How The Taboo Around Menstruation Is Rooted In Religion And Culture

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WASH logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #NoMoreLimits, a campaign by WASH United and Youth Ki Awaaz to break the silence on menstrual hygiene. If you'd like to become a menstrual hygiene champion, share your story on any one of these 5 themes here.

I believe at least some of us will agree to the fact that the menstrual cycle is a natural process intrinsically linked with a woman’s body. Still many of us follow restrictions during our menstrual cycles, whether it’s in our homes, our relatives’ homes or at any religious event. The freedom of women continues to be in the hands of dominant patriarchal discourse.

Very few cultures across the world have acknowledged that menstruation is a natural phenomenon. With the evolution of these cultures, there has not been any significant change in people’s attitudes towards menstruation. Therefore, what remains are haunting questions like what effects do these taboos have on the overall development of women? Are menstruation taboos the cause of leading menstrual health problems in India?

In her research paper, Janet Chawla writes, “According to historian N.N.Bhattacharyya, different areas of India have had notions of the menstruating goddess. In Punjab, it was believed that Mother Earth (‘Dharti Ma’) ‘slept’ for a week each month. In some parts of the Deccan after the ‘navaratra’ goddess temples were closed from the tenth to the full moon day while she rests and refreshes herself. In Malabar region, Mother Earth was believed to rest during the hot weather until she got the first shower of rain. Still today in the Kamakhya temple of Assam and in parts of Orissa the rituals of the menstruation of the goddess are celebrated during the monsoon season.”

In many cultures, the menstrual cycle was seen as a gift and when a girl would menstruate for the first time, it would be celebrated in public. But this again is a problematic view as the menstrual cycle was seen as a boon for reproduction. Even when people celebrated it, they had a reductionist view that a woman’s ultimate goal in life is reproduction.

Indian women perform rituals during the Ambubachi festival at Kamakhya temple in Guwahati.(Image Credit: ANUWAR HAZARIKA/AFP/Getty Images)

As Chawla’s paper demonstrates, such dominant patriarchal notions regarding women’s bodies have religious origins. A large majority of women consider their bodies as impure/unclean during the time of menstruation. They are prohibited from going into temples, mosques, and gurudwaras and they are not supposed to touch any holy book. They cannot touch utensils or even pickles.

As Elizabeth M. Whelan demonstrates, even in Judeo-Christian history, the menstrual taboo has been an important reason for excluding women from the position of authority.

Now let’s look at the effects of this whole silence around menstruation on the physical and mental well-being of girls. Swapna Mazumdar, writing in The Tribune, says, “Talking about menstruation has been a taboo even among planners. It received the attention of the Ministry of Health only in 2011. Close to 70% per cent of Indian women risk getting severe infection, at times causing death, due to poverty, ignorance and shame attached to their menstruation cycle”.

The silence and shame around the menstrual cycle has caused severe problems for girls. In a survey conducted in 2011, it was revealed that in north India, over 30% of the girls interviewed dropped out of school after they start menstruating. Reproductive tract infections (RTI) were 70% more common among women who were unable to maintain hygiene during their menstrual cycle. This kind of cultural neglect of menstrual hygiene is reflected in policies as well because a larger number of adolescent girls (between 12-18 years of age) miss five days of school due to lack of toilets for girls.

Dr Rani Bang in her book “Putting Women First: Women And Health In Rural Community” notes that women in rural communities have very little knowledge about menstrual health. She says, “Cultural perceptions such as colour of the menstrual blood govern their perception of what is normal and abnormal. They resist using sanitary napkin because it is difficult to dispose them off. They fear it might fall into the hands of someone who can use Jadu tona (black magic) against them.” Therefore, education and counselling is a major requirement regarding menstruation, especially in rural areas

Also, the disposal of sanitary napkins causes is very dangerous for the environment. If we are concerned about the huge dumping sites and the ever growing non-degradable waste, then we should dig deeper. There should not be any compulsion for the use of sanitary napkins. Use of cloth is fine if it is used with proper hygiene. The uncleanliness of the cloth is directly linked with the taboo associated with it as women are unable to dry it properly in the sun, as the taboos associated with it make it necessary to hide it. Therefore, there is a strong need of spaces for girls where they feel comfortable about their periods. Menstruation friendly school campuses are a must. Working women in their workplace also suffer from menstrual taboos.

With the emergence of health issues due to poor menstrual hygiene, several organisations, individuals and entrepreneurs have come up with newer, innovative and sustainable solutions. Sinu Joseph, creator of Mythri, an innovative animated video to spread awareness on menstrual hygiene for adolescent girls says, “Pretending it never happened, doesn’t make it go away. When we don’t talk about it, we miss the signs that need attention. What is perfectly normal becomes a big deal and women quietly acquire low self-esteem for what is natural.”

Sinu Joseph and her colleague Vaijayanthi K have taken sessions in thousands of schools in rural Karnataka about menstrual hygiene and based on this experience, they have come up with an animated movie called “Mythri” imparting awareness about menstrual hygiene.

Azadi is an organisation working on demystifying menstruation. Azadi started a national initiative called ‘Bejhijhak’(without hesitation), to break the culture of silence around menstruation. Bejhijhak seeks to create a unified platform to break myths, taboos about menstruation and identify gaps that have created such a culture.

Social media and information technology have also contributed in opening up spaces for dialoguing over menstrual taboos and in spreading awareness and sensitivity about the scale of the issue. Menstrupedia, launched in 2012, is an online portal that focuses on busting menstrual myths and providing correct information. Co-founder of the portal, Aditi Gupta, has created comic books based on her own experience of facing stigma while growing up, to guide girls about growing up and menstruation.

Taboo around menstruation has started to be seen as a threat to health and many people are willing to break this silence. In the exploration of the origins and basis of menstrual taboo, we have looked at the perception of menstrual cycle in different cultures and religions. The root of almost every perception seems to be patriarchy. Therefore, the origin of the taboo certainly seems to be the discrimination that women have had to face from primitive times. There is an institutionalised basis for these taboos to exercise control and authority over women.

Let's ensure that no girl is limited by something as natural and normal as her period by making menstrual hygiene education compulsory in schools.

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  1. Gouri Kaushik

    In India, we celebrate every aspect of life like namkarna, mundan,januh,etc. Mensuration is a very important aspect of girl life. So, maybe they started to celebrate it. but, there might be one more reason that they want to announce that their daughter is ready to get married. As we all know the custom of child marriage. To know about this you can visit this blog http://indiangirldiary.in

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

  • Mobilising young people between the age of 18-35 to become ‘Eco-Period Champions’ by making the switch to a sustainable menstrual alternative and becoming advocates for the project
  • All existing and upcoming public institutions (pink toilets, washrooms, schools, colleges, government offices, government buildings) across East Delhi to have affordable provisions for sustainable menstrual product options

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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