It’s 2019 And Periods Are Still Taboo In India! How Can We Put An End To This?

Today, feminism is more visible than ever but menstrual hygiene is still a taboo topic.

Now winding up the second week of my five-month internship in India, I must admit, there is one thing I have dreaded the about this trip—having to deal with my period in a country with few facilities. Luckily for me, I have a contraceptive coil fitted, so my periods are very light and scarcely last more than a couple of days. Nevertheless, being in a country where you can’t get toilet paper in every bathroom and sanitary products are not readily available, is daunting.

I’ve been to India twice before but had never stayed for more than a month. Until now. I was lucky to avoid a period on my previous visits, but there was no way I could avoid every period for five months!

Firstly, there is the heat to deal with. I think anyone who has periods can empathise with me on this – having a period in soaring temperatures is horrible! It makes me feel gross, sweaty, and uncomfortable, but it gets worse.

When my period started the other day, I was at work with no pads or tampons. Usually, that’s not a problem for me because my periods are light enough to deal with by shoving a bit of toilet roll in my pants. But there was no paper for me to use! And even if there were, there were no waste bins! I felt really on edge because I was wearing a light pink dress – I wouldn’t be able to hide the blood.

My next concern is with people’s attitudes to periods here. India is a country steeped in tradition, but is it really necessary to stop women from entering holy places such as temples when they are menstruating? Before the historical judgement of 2018, the Sabarimala temple had, for decades, stopped menstruating people from entering temples. Whilst women have been fighting this sexist rule for a long time, little progress has been made. Being told that I can’t enter simply because my body is leaking a bit of blood is isolating and makes me feel as if I am doing something wrong. For me, this is a very out-dated and pointless rule.

In some countries, menstruating women continue to be seen as “contaminated and impure”. Here, people will restrict or forbid them from engaging in activities like cooking or attending religious and cultural ceremonies. This is something that I find particularly alarming. Having lived and worked in a rural temple town in Karnataka for the past two months, I am horrified that women and girls are not allowed inside the temple when they are on their period. I cannot see any reason for this except for the oppression of women.

I asked two local women about this rule, they said that no one questioned it, that it was just how things were. Perhaps it is more alarming for me because I am from a very different culture, a culture where an institution could EASILY be sued for sexist discrimination for barring menstruating women. It is so crucial that we question and challenge these out-dated rules and regulations. Women are people too. We should not be shamed for our bodily functions.

This oppressive form of patriarchal control constrains a woman’s autonomy and dictates the way in which she should live her life. It is grossly unacceptable and outrageously unjustified. It is an obvious way to try and keep women as subordinates to men.

Attitudes towards periods need to change in India, and globally! Sanitary products are costly. Even in the UK, a G7 country, we have a serious problem with period poverty. People cannot afford tampons or pads. In recent years, more and more charities have been set up to deal with the problem in my country, but still, it isn’t enough! Even today, women are forced to improvise, using unhygienic materials to shield their blood. Our government even has a 20% tax on sanitary products, deeming them to be a “luxury.” Most European countries place some sort of tax on sanitary products. For example, Hungary has a 27% tax, Switzerland has a 25% tax and Spain has a 4% tax. They’re not luxuries. They are a basic human right.

Sanitary products are taxed in many parts of the world and viewed as a ‘luxury’ item.

A report commissioned by the UN stated that shame, stigma and misinformation surrounding menstruation are contributing to serious human rights concerning women and girls.

Period stigma and shame undermine the well-being of women and girls, making them more vulnerable to gender discrimination, poverty, exclusion and health problems. Subjecting women to this form of discrimination is not only sexist, but it is also an infringement of human rights. Nobody deserves to be shamed or attacked because of their bodies. I believe that periods are a beautiful, natural process that unites almost all women across the world. We need to stand together and reclaim periods as something to be proud of, not ashamed of. Tabooing menstruation results in humiliation and indignity for millions of women and girls worldwide. The consequences of these taboos hit hardest in the least developed parts of the world, where silence translates into fear, psychosocial stresses, exclusion, and a lack of services and education for women and girls.

It’s 2019 – we shouldn’t have to address these problems. If men had periods, there would be safe access to toilets, sanitary products and absolutely no stigma.

What Steps Can We Take To End This Problem?

Education

The most crucial step is educating women and girls so that they understand the menstruation process. This way they will KNOW that it is nothing to be ashamed of and that it is a natural process that shouldn’t be scary at all. I’ve heard horrible stories from girls who didn’t know anything about periods before they first started, this is alarming because it leaves girls feeling very isolated.

At a recent feminist event, I heard the story of a girl in rural India, who was too afraid to tell anyone that she had started her period because she was so terrified of her father finding out. In the night, she would go out into the shed and boil cloths to use to hide the blood. She did this without the aid of any light. After a few days she was in agonising pain – it turned out that the cloths and rags that she had been using were infested with ants. The ants had climbed inside her and she ended up having to have serious surgery, including the removal of her uterus. This is what happens when girls are not educated about their own bodies. They turn to unhygienic solutions that can have catastrophic consequences.

As Normal As The Weather

The second step forward must be body positivity. We must stop treating periods like a dirty subject. Even some of my female friends blush or cringe when periods are spoken about. It’s absurd. We all need to get to the point where we can talk about periods as casually as we talk about the weather. It’s an effective way to take back control of our bodies. We need to stand together to reassure ourselves that we’re ok and that we have NOTHING to be ashamed of. The surge of hormones that we get when we bleed is bad enough, we don’t need to feel isolated on top of that!

Lend A Helping Hand

There are charitable methods to tackle period poverty. A really useful and discreet way to help girls out is to organise a “red box” in your community. In this box, you can put tampons and pads, wipes, and deodorant – anything you can think of that might help out someone on their period. These boxes can then be kept in schools or workplaces so that people can easily access them. You can organise events to raise money or reach out to charities such as Period India to help keep the boxes full.

Spare What You Can

Supporting period-focused charities. Charities like Bloody Good Period and PERIOD are so important because they are challenging period poverty as well as tackling stigma. They take cash donations as well as tampons and pads. Anyone can get involved to help out by donating period products to food banks. Pads and tampons are expensive, so bleeding is a huge burden for those in need. Spare what you can.

Be Intersectional

We also must recognise that not all women bleed and that not everyone who bleeds is a woman. Recognising trans struggles should be part of the agenda!

In the same vein, men should also be included in the conversations about women’s bodies, particularly periods. So many men are squeamish about periods which is, quite frankly ridiculous. Fathers and husbands who feel too embarrassed to buy period products for their wives and daughters are absurd. It’s a natural part of life. Men need to recognise that periods aren’t disgusting or private.

Community Action

Community groups like Girl Up have such an important role because they have the power to actually make a difference. During my time at the summit, I saw how these groups provide safe spaces for women to get together and talk without the fear of being shut down by a man or feeling rejected because of something that we do or say.

Likewise, through my magazine collective FRIGID, we encourage people to talk about their bodies and share stories through words and art. It’s very liberating for everyone involved.

We need more safe spaces to encourage women of all ages to get together with the freedom to express their concerns.

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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

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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