“Myth number 1: If you are on your periods and you handle wheat while cooking, the flour will get germs. Myth Number 2: If a girl applied mehendi (henna), she will get her periods earlier. Myth Number 3: A girl, during her periods, should sleep in a space outside the house, even though it is unsafe for her–and so on! Common myths like these were an integral part of sharing when we interviewed teenage girls residing in remote interior villages of Mahisagar district in Gujarat,” said Hinal Gor, the founder of Kinetic Rural Development Foundation, a grassroots organisation based in Gujarat.
“We educate girls on the do’s and don’ts menstrual hygiene. But they face a lot of struggle when they have to talk about it with their mothers and other family members,” she said while sharing her field experience while spreading awareness among 500+ girls and their mothers in the village of Mahisagar.
Awareness levels among girls today, about safe menstrual hygiene practices has been seeing an increase. For example, data from National Family and Health Survey (NHFS-4) revealed that there has been a significant increase in the number of young women (15-24 years) who use “hygienic methods of menstrual protection” (mostly sanitary pads), from 12 % in 2010 to 58 % in 2015-16.
However, one of the major challenges faced by girls is to convince their parents to incorporate safe practices. “You talk to our mothers, aunties, and grannies along with educating us”—that’s their constant demand, whether it’s in the rural or urban areas. Studies based in India talk about how a dialogue between young girls and their female relatives, who consider menstruation as “dirty“, can have a lot of influence.
The struggle of dealing with taboos, shame, and myths are not limited to parents, but it extends to school teachers too, who often play the role of another primary source of knowledge transmission for teenagers. Not all, but many teachers simply avoid teaching the science chapter on the reproductive system, and ask the children to learn this themselves because teachers feel uncomfortable and shy to broach those topics. However, many teachers and Anganwadi workers expressed their satisfaction in learning, when video sessions on how reproductive systems work were held by various NGOs.
Shruti, an intern at the Urban Health and Climate Resilience Centre of Excellence in Surat, and a masters student at the Indian Institute of Public Health, in her fieldwork study from 2018 talks about teachers’ perspective: “Apart from physiological and emotional issues of menstrual health, many girls suffer academically because of school absenteeism during their periods. Teachers themselves need skill building about how to pass the ‘right’ messages, how not to ‘panic’ when girls ask ‘uncomfortable’ questions, and also how to counsel girls in their psychologically vulnerable phase. In cities, parents from low-income groups have long working hours. So, the limited scope of parent-teacher interaction further hampers the menstrual health dialogue.”
The evident gap between worldviews of both generations is probably because firstly, the surrounding world has rapidly changed from ‘then’ to ‘now’. Secondly, information is available on the finger-tips of today’s adolescents, which was not the case with our parents. Thirdly, beliefs take time to change, and life skills take time to develop.
It’s well established that the healthy and dignified lives of girls depend on their menstrual health. We also know by now the importance of spreading knowledge and awareness. But, programs and on-ground work must consider the fact that to convert knowledge into action, the older generations must be ready and supportive. And so, strengthening inter-generational dialogues can be one tool to normalise conversations around menstrual health in our society.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.