A cis woman bleeds 5-7 days a month from 10-50 years of age. Approximately, we bleed for 3000 days throughout our lives. It is a normal physiological process within our body, and we don’t have a choice about it. Despite that, menstruation is such a huge problem, both socially and economically.
800 million girls are menstruating right now in the world. Yet, the problems around it are not addressed. 20-30% of girls in developing nations miss school during periods. About a quarter of girls in India drop out of school once they start menstruating. The facts and figures make for a long list. In my opinion, there are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, the lack of access to sanitation facilities, like toilets and clean water. Several schools in the least developed nations do not have adequate sanitation.
Secondly, the high tax imposed on sanitary products makes them unaffordable for a majority of sections in many countries. Most countries of the world charge a fairly high tax on tampons, pads etc. Around 65% of women cannot afford menstrual products. The inability to afford menstrual hygiene products due to financial constraints is known as period poverty.
Besides the economic perspective to the problems, what plays an even greater role is the social factor. The shame and stigma around it, coupled with a lack of education and awareness, has made menstruation a huge taboo.
‘That time of the month, shark week, aunt flow, on your rags, the flowers, period”. There are more than 69 different terms that we use globally to describe menstruation other than the word itself. All around the world girls, women, transgender and intersex people suffer from the stigma of menstruation through bullying, cultural taboos and discrimination.
Across the world, menstruating individuals are subject to various kinds of restrictive and discriminatory practices. A deep-rooted cultural belief that they are unclean and impure during menstruation has been pervasive, leading to isolation.
One such common and rampant practice in Nepal is Chhaupadi. It is an ancient Hindu ritual where women are banished from their homes and forced to stay in secluded huts during menstruation. This kind of treatment is a cultural custom in Nepal and reflects the social stigma attached to menstruation, that remains too common today. In Achham alone, at least 12 women have died while following Chaupadi since 2007, as of 2018 figures.
Besides such extreme instances of inhuman treatment meted out to menstruating individuals, there are more subtle practices normalised even in urban homes.
So, here’s a little story about my encounter with my bleeding vagina.
I started menstruating when I was 10. I knew nothing about it. I panicked slightly and called my mother. She calmed me down and explained what was going on. I grew up in a home where my father would buy us pads and even my brother would have normal conversations about it. While I was menstruating, I would do everything that I usually do, except visit temples. Being someone who is not overtly religious, I never bothered to question this one practice. I followed it for the longest time, until a couple of years back.
When I associated myself with the campaigns for tax exemption on menstrual products in India, I got an insight into how large the problem was. I read up so much about it, spoke to people and organisations, and thereafter, advocated for it, through my platforms as well.
That was the time I thought the silent operation of such a practice by myself, is, in a way contributing to the perpetuation of the stigma. I spoke to my mother, explained to her why it needed to be stopped. By the end of my conversation with her, she agreed with me. The first time I went to a Kali temple while I was menstruating, that tiny act of rebellion felt so liberating.
In an all-girls’ school with female faculty, we would always whisper the word ‘periods’ or hide our pads while walking down the corridors. It was not something we were told to do but we had just internalised this behaviour. We were conditioned by the ‘blue liquid’ shown on ads or hushed up conversations.
That continued till one day, I screamed “periods”, when someone asked me why I was feeling unwell. I started carrying the pad in my hand, without sliding it inside a pocket or covering it in a piece of paper. Initially, other girls would stare but then gradually, that became normal.
The subtle internalisation in urban homes, educational institutions, gross discrimination and stigma in other places, (mostly rural), the inaction by government policy, and lack of infrastructure; all of it is a part of the problem that is fuelling the denial of basic human rights to people across the world.
Not having access to clean water, toilets, menstrual products; having to use alternative means like rags, sand, ash, and hay, is making women vulnerable to reproductive health risks. The sigma is compelling young people to drop out of school and miss school during periods – this is denying them their right to education. Extreme practices, like staying in period huts are claiming lives. Transgender and intersex people who menstruate do not have access to toilets. A person being denied proper facilities for their menstrual health is a denial of the right to a dignified life.