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Message To 21st Century Indian Feminists: It’s Time To Abolish Period Stigmas

This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

As a girl, and later as a woman, life throws numerous challenges and obstacles at almost every point in time towards us. A lot of these challenges are born out of social and cultural impositions, and others, which are natural, are being given a social and cultural background. In a society that has been prominently patriarchal throughout history, women’s position in it has always been kept at the sidelines.

From the Hindu religious text of Manusmriti to the English literary works of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, there is literary evidence to indicate that  women are controlled and made submissive by patriarchy. The world, as it was hundreds of years ago, considered women to be an asset of a man, holding just as much value as his land, animals and crops.

In the modern world, the situation has dramatically changed, and has changed for the better. Women have progressed to claim what should have been given to them naturally. The world did not accept this change in status quo and the shifting scales of a male-dominated society with ease.

Earliest advocates of women’s rights and precursors to the modern feminist movement, such as Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (first signatory of Declaration of Sentiments) had to fight battles against patriarchy so that future generation of women have the basic rights of voting, education, property and marriage, among many others.

For addressing the battles and struggles led by women against patriarchy, and primitive, amoral and misogynistic orthodoxy, we do not necessarily have to turn to the reformers from the West. In India, the fight for women’s rights was, and still is, very different from that of the western world.

But, for addressing the battles and struggles led by women against patriarchy, and primitive, amoral and misogynistic orthodoxy, we do not necessarily have to turn to the reformers from the West. In India, the fight for women’s rights was, and still is, very different from that of the western world. As a matter of fact, any civil and human rights movement significantly depends on the geography, society, politics and economy of a country.

In India, brave women reformers and women’s rights activists had to battle the deeply-settled patriarchy along with closely-mixed religious and cultural orthodox practices that were, and still are, a natural part of people in the subcontinent. The great Savitri Bai Phule and Pandita Ramabai Ranade, among many other brave women, are rightly considered the harbingers of the Indian women’s rights movement. They fought patriarchy that was embedded in every aspect in the life of an Indian woman — at her birth, in her body, mind, marriage, disposition, and in the rarest cases, education.

One such issue in India that still has widespread ambiguity, silence and pardah around it is menstruation. This silence about a naturally-occurring process in a woman’s body is the evidence of the taboo that female sexual health and sexuality is considered to be. To delve deep into this topic, let’s first learn about the phenomenon.

What is Menstruation?

Menstruation is the process of shedding of the uterine lining in the female body, accompanied by bleeding on a regular monthly basis. It begins in girls at the onset of puberty (teenage) around the age of 12-15 years, and ends with menopause, which occurs around the age of 45-50 years. The first “periods”, as they are referred to, are known as menarche and the last periods are known as menopause. Periods also stop when a woman becomes pregnant; they do not resume until the initial stage of breastfeeding.

Duration Of Periods

Usually, the menstrual cycle gets renewed in 28-45 days, varying from person to person. Bleeding lasts for 5-7 days, and also varies from person to person.

What Is The Reason Behind Periods?

Menstruation occurs to mark the onset of puberty in a girl’s life, which also means that she is capable of reproduction. Every month, her body is prepared for pregnancy. The uterus lining thickens for the embryo to get embedded after the egg is released from the ovaries. In the event of fertilisation, the future fetus rests here until childbirth. But if there is no such event, this uterus lining sheds off in the form of blood through the vagina.

What Happens And How Does It Feel?

When a girl gets her period for the first time, she might feel some changes occurring in her body, like gloominess, laziness, lethargicness and fatigue. These emotional and physical symptoms are known as Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). Many girls are unable to understand the normalcy of these changes and end up feeling ashamed and shy — this is due to lack of information; important information about menstruation has customarily been withheld from girls and women in India.

Health Issues Related To Menstruation

Regular periods are a sign that the female body is working normally and is healthy. But, there are some symptoms that indicate malfunctioning in a woman’s body, which can cause serious problems.

Some of these symptoms are painful cramps, absent periods, infrequent periods, short or light periods, frequent periods, heavy or long periods. In any such case, the doctor should immediately be consulted. But, due to a lack of information, girls are often unable to recognise any of these symptoms and end up suffering fatal consequences.

Myths And Taboos About Menstruation In The Indian Society

Despite centuries of work towards women’s social upliftment and empowerment by the likes of Phule and Ranade, in the present system, menstruation is still considered ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’. This taboo/impure/dirty definition of a natural biological process is being carried on by society as a cultural practice of the past. The origin of this myth dates back to the Vedic times and is often linked to Indra’s (a Hindu deity) slaying of Vritras, a demon.

It has been written in the Vedas that the guilt of killing a Brahmana (the uppermost varna in the Hindu caste system) appears every month as the menstrual flow in women’s body, as women had taken upon themselves a part of Indra’s guilt. This archaic and baseless theory has disrupted the normal lives of Indian women. In India, women who are menstruating are not allowed to live a normal life as they are prohibited from performing several day to day chores.

Many girls and women in rural, and even urban, India are restricted from entering temples from the fear of ruining the puja led by male brahmins. They are also restricted from offering prayers and touching holy books. They are prohibited from entering the kitchen — the “supposed” territory of the Indian woman. It is a widespread belief across rural and urban India that girls and women who are ovulating are impure, dirty and unhygienic, and anything they touch and possess is contaminated.

The many misconceptions about menstruation, such as its association with evil spirits, leads shame and embarrassment by any issue surrounding female sexual health. In some parts of India, women bury the clothes they use during their menstruation to prevent “evil spirits” from using them. Some believe that menstrual blood is dangerous and can be maliciously used to cause harm using kala jaadu” (black magic).

The misinformation and orthodox beliefs are so prevalent that it is alleged that a woman can use another woman’s menstrual blood to “impose will” on her husband. It is also believed that if a girl touches a cow while she is menstruating, the cow becomes infertile.

These beliefs are widely popular and faithfully practised in a majority of India. There is no scientific explanation and logic behind these beliefs, and yet, a majority of the Indian population goes on to practice these amoral and discriminatory practices as the patriarchal and misogynistic society dictates them to.

Amidst these primitive beliefs, archaic cultures, and extremely inhuman practices that are an outcome of a traditionally patriarchal Indian society, the only individual that suffers the most is the woman. Her sexual health has been put behind a lakshman rekha of obscurity and ambiguity, and there seems to be no escape from centuries-old traditions. These real obstacles in a woman’s life make her already-difficult survival more unfortunate and inconvenient.

 

Such practices take a serious toll on women’s health. They are not provided with basic yet necessary medical equipment, that is sanitary napkins and pad.

An environment of shame and guilt has been built over centuries about menstruating women. And as a result, today’s adolescent girls and women feel insecure, ashamed and stigmatised when they’re menstruating. Even if they overcome this societal and familial shame to procure sanitary napkins, they feel embarrassed to buy them from pharmacy stores run by men. This results in women using unhygienic ways to handle their menstrual blood flow, such as filling up old socks with cotton and old rags, and using them to absorb blood. This puts their health at risk and increases the possibility of infection like Herpes and Hepatitis.

A majority of adolescent girls and women in India remain unfamiliar with the sanitary napkins and have never even heard of it, let alone used it. In a report on ‘Menstrual Hygiene, Women’s Day Special’ by NDTV, it was put forth that the percentage of girls and women using sanitary napkins in India is less than 20%. The report also mentions that every year, 23 million women drop out of school when they start menstruating — some are forced by their families to do so, and some do it with their own will.

A report by the Indian Council for Medical Research in  2011-12 states that only 38% menstruating girls in India spoke to their mothers about menstruation. Almost 70% of mothers with menstruating daughters considered menstruation “dirty” and didn’t know how to manage menstruation in a hygienic manner. The research also said that schools are not that helpful as there are many schools that don’t educate their students about menstruation and sexual health.

The lack of knowledge is costing young girls and women their futures. It is a topic about which people are not too keen on discussing. They feel uncomfortable talking about sexual and reproductive health. These same people, who are well in a majority, don’t feel that there is any need to make teenage girls aware about sex education and menstruation.

A key issue that is associated with menstruation is the disposal of sanitary waste generated in the process. Old practices dictate that women burn the already old, dirty and unhygienic cloth rag, used by women at the cost of endangering their lives, be burnt in utmost secrecy post its use in the process of menstruation. It is a huge problem that needs to be addressed urgently.

Data by government health organisations show that every month, 353 million women and adolescent girls across India use sanitary products and generate menstrual waste. In urban areas, girls and females dispose off the used sanitary napkins by flushing in toilets or by throwing them normally in trash with other waste.  But in rural areas, women are still commanded to follow the old ritual of disposing by burning or burying in secrecy, away from the eyes of people.

So, along with generating awareness and giving vital information to all girls, boys, women and men, proper steps should be initiated towards addressing the issue of sanitary waste disposal. Steps such as special bins for menstrual waste or the use of incinerators are a few suggestions for adopting a healthier and hygienic approach for disposing the sanitary waste.

There is an urgent need for these reforms because it is high time we discard the centuries-old traditions that put baseless customs and beliefs above the health, life and well-being of an actual living being. Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) must be an open topic, and information about menstrual hygiene and the sanitary products must be accessible to every girl and woman. In fact, men should be educated about this issue too, in order to create awareness among other gender circles about sexual and reproductive health.

Modern technology should be used by the government and respective authorities to create awareness about sexual health and menstruation. Applications and video-based platforms should be used to spread the message of discarding taboos and orthodox customs, and embracing healthy ways to maintain hygiene in regards to the sexual health of women.

Thus, in this 21st century, we must look back to Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai Ranade, Tarabai Shinde, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and all the great Indian reformers who dedicated their lives to uplift the poor, empower women and give equal strength to every individual who had been crushed by the vices of old customs, patriarchy and orthodoxy.

They abolished the inhumane ‘Sati Pratha’ and other misogynistic practices; now it is our chance to abolish the stigmatisation of menstruation. Let us all embrace their teachings, and together, we must fight to defeat the enemy that resides in the archaic and obsolete customs of a patriarchal society.

About the author: Samriddhi Sharma studies in Class IX in Delhi Public School, Ghaziabad, Vasundhara. She can be reached at about.samriddhi@gmail.com. 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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