Preaching about something and doing it are two different things. Speaking from the podium feels easier as compared to being on the ground and executing the plan. All over the world and in our daily lives as well, we face this phenomenon.
So when I was supposed to write on how religion, myths and taboos and their role in menstrual hygiene management, I too was guilty of being part of the former party. My solutions were restricted to the worldview I knew— that of people of a certain class, economic background and scientific temper. It limits our understanding outside our social sphere and hinders problem-solving.
Menstruation in India in itself is an issue that goes beyond how a privileged person can ever imagine. Twenty-three million women drop out of school every year when they start menstruating in India. Only 48% of the adolescent girl population in India is aware of menstruation before their period.
Understanding an issue comprehensively is the first step towards solving it. Crack it, and the rest of the levels become much more manageable. Therefore to understand how menstruation works in the Indian context, I talked to a few people out there working on the ground. These people have seen the issue closely, experienced it, and then developed ad hoc solutions to provide sustainable strategies. Here’s what they had to say.
India is a diverse country. We see different dialects, different traditions and different people as we move across its lengths and breadth. This holds for its menstrual beliefs as well. “Women in Udaipur refrain from drying out their menstrual cloths in the open because they’re worried the sight of menstrual fluid will blind out the males. However travel a bit, and you’ll find women in the southern regions being celebrated on the onset of their period” said Ajita, someone who has been working on menstrual hygiene management in the rural areas for years now.
Across India, you see different myths and taboos, so there’s no one size fits all strategy when it comes to solutions as well. When trying to debunk the myths, the most effective way is to understand the region, the culture and its people, and then provide them with solutions that you know they’ll respond positively to.
Another thing that we see in large numbers in the rural areas is the unawareness about menstruation. As many as 79% of Indian girls are unaware of menstrual hygiene practices. With the majority of them being in underdeveloped areas, it is essential to factor in this knowledge while preparing plans to promote menstrual hygiene management.
“So what I used to do is that I used to make a chart of the female reproductive system in Hindi, and scientifically explain to them what exactly menstruation is. This helped them look at menstruation as a biological process, rather than seeing it from a religious angle and freed the act of menstruation from any social or cultural taboos” revealed Swarnima, who has been working with young girls in Maharashtra.
Tackling such issues in front of someone who hasn’t had the best of education and still hasn’t been exposed to the world is completely different from an urban group aware of menstruation. According to the menstrual health survey conducted by YouthKiAwaaz, as many as 90.1% of the respondents believed that certain practices should be avoided during periods. So, how do you convince young girls to let go of myths and taboos that have been ingrained in them?
“It is better to not attack the taboo straightaway. It puts you on the back foot and what I’ve seen is that then it becomes a fight of us vs them. In some cases, I’ve even had men coming up and saying that we’re trying to teach them wrong things. What I’ve seen working personally is a lot of simple games and role plays that these girls can relate to and learn from. So using these tricks to teach them best practices is an ideal way” said Ajita.
“I feel you have got to make them comfortable. You have to look at their age, their demographic and the background they come from. Spend time with them, and try to explain it to them the reason behind the myths and taboos in your own simple language. You’ll see a bit of resistance at first, but they usually come around. Also, pick your battles. We can’t just go around saying that their religion is wrong and what they believe is a myth. Focus on things that’ll bring a change now. Like making sure they don’t miss school during their periods, or that they take a bath when they’re menstruation. This will help them in getting aware and imbibe practices that’ll help them.” concluded Swarnima.
Only 55% of the girls consider menstruation to be normal. That is a metric that needs to change. The issues we see in rural India are a stark contrast to the ones we see in the urban parts of the country. While we see a time wherein some parts even alternative products such as tampons and menstrual cups, are seeing acceptance, that time is still a long way away when it comes to the grassroots. However, the effort being put in by thousands of people gives hope that while things are surely changing when it comes to menstrual hygiene management in India, they’re taking a turn for the better.
* Sincere thanks to Ajita and Swarnima for their valuable inputs on the issue.
The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program