I was thirteen when I bled for the first time. I remember I was getting ready for school when I spotted blood stains in my underwear. I had shown the same to my mother who got equally hyper and started shouting on top of her lungs “My daughter has got her periods. Oh my goodness, my daughter is now no more a child.” She immediately asked me to skip school that day—to which I had revolted, so she had no option but to tie some old clothes around my waist to soak the blood as she never used a sanitary napkin herself.
Before I forget, we lived in a small town Agartala, which can be considered equivalent to a rural sector, and I studied in Holy Cross School the only English medium the city had during those days. Though I had been to school that day, I was uncomfortable throughout. I couldn’t pee, I was constantly worried if I had stained my skirt, and I also had to remember my mother’s wise words “keep this discreet from your male peers.” So, I also had to be extra vigilant as I studied in a co-ed school.
Overall, it was a very cumbersome experience. Now in my forties, my rage takes the upper hand when I realize how little my mother, who in spite of being a professor lacked in the basic knowledge on menstruation. And hats off to my school for never having a clean toilet or provisions for disposing of the sanitary napkins. I would often spot the blood clotted clothes strewn carelessly in the dirty school lavatory. My school also lacked the provision of storing sanitary pads for female students during emergencies.
The case was equally bad with my friend. She suffered from severe menstrual cramps, which made it obvious that she was in her menses. Our school was famous for conducting exams, making it difficult to take a leave even for a day. So come whatever may, we had to be present in the school almost every day. If in case we took leave during our menses and our parents made the mistake of writing down the same as the cause of leave, it would come under the scrutiny of our hostile teacher Mrs Aditi Chaudhuri who would leave no chance to shame that already nervous little girl.
According to a report by NDTV, during the annual function at a secondary school in Rajasthan’s Dholpur district, way back in 2017, where Manoj Kumar, the district health officer had been among one of the grandee’s, the drastic low number of girl students in the school drew his attention. He was told that a handful of girls dropped out of school as they reached their teens, or in better words, as they hit their menses. The schools in these dim and distant districts like Dholpur hardly had a functional toilet, let alone sanitary napkin dispensers.
My school and several other schools in these remote districts till the day, remain a strong example that menstruation is something which should be cloaked in mystery; it’s a taboo, and one cannot speak about it openly. In a country of 300 million women like India, where 30% of the women menstruate, it has been observed that menstruation is still a subject of gender incongruity. Myths about menstruation among the rural populace force a girl child to drop out of school in her teens or be repudiated during their menstrual cycle every month.
During the year 2014, NGO Dasra conducted a report Spot On!, and it was observed that 23 million girls withdrew from schools annually as they lacked knowledge and awareness on menstruation. The report also came up with some startling numbers. With little to no knowledge of menstruation, it was observed that 70% of mothers in the rural sectors considered periods as unclean. There was also a lack of awareness on the same. It was seen that 71% of adolescent girls were unaware of menses until they hit their menarche. A report by UNICEF projected that 79% of women and young girls in Tamil Nadu, 66% in Uttar Pradesh, 56% in Rajasthan and 51% in West Bengal were completely ignorant of menstrual hygiene enactments.
Now coming back to my school, where at least I did not have to discontinue my schooling as my parents could afford sanitary pads. But as I mentioned earlier, my school lacked the basic provision of stocking sanitary napkins for emergencies. Also, my school did not even provide any training programs to the girls on menstruation and its importance. Likewise, in cities, we have easy access to sanitary napkins, but in rural areas, they are found with much difficulty.
Majority of the girls in the rural sectors bank on bucolic or other handy material which is readily available. And we know how dangerous, unhygienic and unsanitary these products are. It’s seen that women tie up worn-out/old clothes around their waist to absorb the menstrual blood. Much to the horror, filthy socks filled with soil are also tied around their waist for the said purpose. This results in dangerous infection which causes hindrances in day-to-day activities of a woman during her periods. Barely 2% to 3% of bucolic women have the proper knowledge and access to sanitary napkins. The lack of demand hence results in less stocking of sanitary napkins by the shopkeepers in those distant areas.
The impact of poor awareness of menstrual hygiene among the rural masses often leads to serious afflictions in adolescent girls and menstruating women in those faraway places. About 120 million menstruating adults in India encounter menstrual dysfunctions which affect their normal chores. Almost 60,000 deaths due to cervical cancer are reported from India out of which two-third are a result of poor menstrual hygiene. Some more ailments arising from poor menstrual hygiene in the rural sector comprise of anemia, irregular periods, Urinary Tract Infections (UTI) and psychological traumas like consternation, discomfort and mortification. Surveys conducted by the health ministry in 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2012 had suggested had we indoctrinated among the rural populace the importance of menstrual hygiene these maladies could have had been avoided.
In closure, I say conditions for menstruating women in rural sectors can only improve when the government raises awareness about menstrual hygiene. Training program on awareness of menstrual hygiene should be provided to each woman from the rural community. I want to add why only women? It should be rendered to men as well. Else, how will we upheave cognizance?
Our country has progressed, and the live example is the fact that it was in 1990, where there was a ban on advertisements promoting sanitary napkins. It was us who ultimately broke taboos and made a full-fledged feature film ‘PadMan’ about a low-cost sanitary napkin entrepreneur in the year 2018. India has indeed come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. Providing sanitary napkins to over 300 million women and ensuring that they do not adhere to age-old traditions of using cloth, socks or sand should be our goal. Improving menstrual hygiene should be our mantra, and our primary focus should be on rural areas.