World Menstrual Hygiene day was celebrated for the fourth time this year on May 28, with more than 400 organisations working towards creating realisation on menstrual hygiene management as part of an initiative by WASH United. But the fact is that very few culture across the world have acknowledged that menstruation is a natural phenomenon.
In Indian culture menstrual blood is considered impure. It has been claimed that women are polluted during their menstrual cycle and cannot be allowed to enter any holy places. According to historian N.N Bhattacharya, different areas of India have had beliefs of the menstruating goddess. In Punjab, it was believed that Mother Earth (dharti maa) slept for a week each month. In the Malabar region, Mother Earth was believed to rest during hot weather until she goes to meet the first shower of rain.
In various Indian cultures, the menstrual cycle is seen as a gift and when a girl would menstruate for the first time it would be celebrated in public. Even when people celebrate it, they do with the view that women’s ultimate goal in life is reproduction.
There are numerous myths around periods such as – women can’t enter a holy place as they are unclean, women have cooties that make men sick, many even treat it as a disease, women can’t touch pickles because it would go bad, and pads need to be kept unseen and away from other trash or it can lead to cancer. These crazy and ridiculous myths are huge obstacles holding women back in many ways.
The secrecy and shame around menstruation cause severe difficulties for girls. According to a survey conducted by National Family Health Organisation (2015-16), about 62% women in age group 15-24 still rely on cloth during periods. It has seen that 43% of Indian women didn’t have access to sanitary pads at beginning of the period while 36% women felt embarrassed in buying sanitary napkins because of customers around them. Reproductive tract infections were 70% common among women who were not able to maintain menstrual hygiene. Many girls refused to go to school during their periods or even dropped out of school after they started menstruating due to lack of toilets in schools.
In recent years, organisations and individuals have played an active role to promote awareness about menstrual hygiene through building toilets and providing low-cost pads. State Government of Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Odisha provide free sanitary napkins to government schools in a bid to prevent girls from missing school during their periods. Another example can be Bollywood movie “Padman” helmed by mainstream actor Akshay Kumar which drew very encouraging reactions especially in a country like India. Individuals like Arunachalam Muruganantham, the real-life Padmam, take the initiative to provide a solution for expensive sanitary napkins and organisations like Multi-Project help to reach girls in rural areas and help them to gain access to sanitary napkins and disposal units.
There has definitely been an increase in awareness among people across India on menstrual hygiene but at the grass root level ignorance still exists. Many girls are not properly aware of the functions of their reproductive organs so it’s important to conduct seminars and workshops in rural areas on menstruation.
Making it a part of formal education can be a good solution but only if teachers don’t skip that chapter. Teachers often do this because of hesitation to speak on periods in class especially among boys but it’s really important to discuss with it boys and tell them that there is nothing to be horrified about it, it’s just a natural process.
Once everyone has education, the taboos related to periods will be challenged. Girls will be able to ask better questions and not let age-old myths restrict them.