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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.