By Jaya Shroff:
It may appear that things have moved in a positive direction when it comes to removing stigma around menstruation in India’s biggest cities, but walk its urban slums and you’ll still witness scenes from Akshay Kumar’s hit Hindi movie Padman playing out – ‘Hum auraton ke liye bimari se marna sharm ke saath jeene se behtar hai.’ (For women like us, it is better to die of an illness than live with shame).
Menstruation is still such a taboo in Delhi’s urban slums that many women won’t even walk to a chemist to buy a sanitary pad. Married and middle-aged women still prefer using old rags, partially because of the cost, but more because of the shame associated with going out and buying a pad; women across Delhi’s urban slums told this reporter.
Even at the age of 48, Jayalakshmi Amma, who lives in a slum near Nandini Layout in Bengaluru, did not know the biological role of menstruation in a woman’s body, till she attended an awareness session conducted by Smile Foundation.
“We want to know more about the menstrual process and related hygiene. It is the first time that I have come to know why I bleed every month. Earlier, I thought that this was because all the girls were cursed. Now that I know that this happens because of biological reasons and not some myth, I feel so much better about myself and about being a woman,” she said.
Thirty-six-year-old Asha Devi recounts a similar tale. “I now know that menstruation is important for a woman’s well-being. It is also necessary to have these periodic cycles for healthy childbirth, and also for the feeding for the foetus as the unborn baby gets his nutrition from the blood,” she said.
“I also learned that if a girl is 16-18 years of age and not menstruating, then there is a problem, especially if she hopes to have children in the future. So, menstruation is indeed good news,” she said, sharing her learning.
“Young girls have no prior knowledge about the biological process they will go through most of their life,” says Smile Foundation’s Seema Kumar, who leads the women empowerment programme at Smile foundation, and goes from slum to slum, with community mobilisers, and health counsellors, to establish a bond with poor women, and create awareness on menstruation-related health issues.
“We don’t discuss menstrual hygiene, women’s health and nutrition in silos. We talk of all issues—family planning, nutrition, anaemia, breastfeeding, and reproductive health. The idea is to get a conversation going so that these issues are not discussed behind doors and women can feel free to talk about their problems, know their bodies and also take charge of their health and well-being,” Kumar said.
Only 48 percent of the adolescent girl population in India are aware of menstruation prior to their first period. Additionally, another study shows that 40% of girls remain absent from school when they menstruate. Nearly 65% reported that it affected their daily activities at school and that they had to miss their class tests and classes as a result of pain, anxiety, shame and staining of their uniform.
In Delhi, interactions undertaken with women and girls as part of a study, to understand attitudes around MHM, revealed that most of them understood menstruation as the expulsion of ‘dirty blood’ (ganda khoon) from the body. “This deeply ingrained notion was associated with the perception of menstruation as impure and consequently, with the need to follow several restrictions. Women mentioned that in the village, they followed several restrictions during menstruation. They were not allowed to cook, did not interact with other members of the household, lived away from the house, etc. However, given the lack of space in urban slums, it was not always possible to observe these taboos,” the study revealed.
“In villages, we used to be isolated [during our period], but in urban locations, that is not possible—we have no space. And if we women don’t cook, how would people in the household eat? So we only follow what [restrictions] we can,” Renu, 40, told the interviewers.
In a massive push for female hygiene, the central government recently slashed down the costs of sanitary napkins Suvidha sold in its Jan Aushadhi Kendras to Re1 from Rs2.5.
In the recent past, several state governments like Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have pushed for free distribution for sanitary napkins.
Yet, when it comes to measuring the impact of these measures on women living in India’s cities, clearly a lot needs to happen. “The bigger and more important hurdle is changing mindsets. The focus should be on reducing and finally removing the stigma around the issue,” said a senior official from the Ministry of Health, requesting anonymity.
(The author is New Delhi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)