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Origin Of ‘On The Rags’? Who Invented The Pad? Your 101 On History Of Menstruation

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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.

By Rishita Banik

Menstruation is an experience that encompasses gender, sexuality, ethnicity and era. Although a lot of our history remains undocumented, unexplored or lost in translation; research has gained momentum in the fields of gender studies and cultural histories of civilizations.

The Situation In Ancient Greece

Male surgeons have documented the accounts of menstruation in the era before the birth of Christ. Therefore they do not represent the voices of menstruating women during, nor do they mention non-binary menstruators. The Greek society was flourishing, patriarchal society with booming trade and commerce.

Amidst the wars, bloodshed and annexations, ancient Greece was also home to some of the greatest philosophers and architects. Among the educated and royal, few had regard for scientific temperament, and the peasantry included mostly of farmers, masons, soldiers and sailors, and they worshipped the elements of nature. Their lives were most affected by natural calamities, and yet they had little idea as to how these events occurred, so they prayed to the deities to be saved from the wrath of nature.

Women during this era had no access to formal education. They wore belts and girdles around the waist fitted with intricately embroidered fabric with an amulet of herbs around the neck to alleviate menstrual pains.

Jumping To Egypt

The Egyptians used wool fused with herbs as a pessary, or vaginal insertion to control menstrual flow. The nobility educated their women at home in practical subjects of cooking, sewing and housekeeping. Women of lesser fortune were married off at an early age, they became maids or nurses, and or worse, they were sold into slavery by their families. To say that a common woman had no voice in courts, palaces, streets, or even their household would be an understatement.

The Middle-Ages Around The World

The subject of menstruation remained a problematic topic in the middle ages under the powerful influence and growing power of the Church. Even Hinduism, Islam and Judaism had taboos circling menstruation and women were labelled unclean, impure and were bound by cultural rituals.

An Indian woman makes cloth sanitary napkins at the NGO Goonj in New Delhi; many Indian women don’t have more than scraps of old cloth when menstruating, which can pose health risks.

Different cultures wore different items of clothing, but during the middle ages, many women used cloth rags, from where the colloquial term- ‘on the rag‘ emerges. In medieval Europe, women tied sweet-smelling herbs around their necks and waists, hoping it would mask the odour of blood, in parts of the world people relied on home-remedies and roots to relieve cramps.

In the middle ages, devotion to God and family were deemed to be a woman’s real purpose, women who broke free from the confines of society to study science and philosophy were shunned by their community. Men feared people straying from the path of religion and the women who did were prosecuted and publicly burnt as witches. People feared the Church and any principles other than the words of the Gospel would get a person imprisoned. So, the God-fearing people lived their lives following religious scriptures and not scientific truth till the days of the Renaissance.

Perceptions In India

Since the Vedic Ages, society in India has confined women within their quarters, especially during menstruation, and it was believed that their touch poisoned objects around them. Throughout generations, women followed the doctrines and meekly hid behind their chambers during the menstrual period until the colonization of India that brought about radical changes in our country.

Invention Of Sanitary Pad

The British rule over India not only saw changes in trade, commerce and law; it also saw a transformation in social ethics. With the abolition of Sati, women were given more political rights like widow-remarriage and inheritance of property. Schools opened their doors for women, and women from noble families could now receive a formal education.

Around 1850, menstruators in Europe began using sanitary aprons, and menstrual belts and the first menstrual pad was invented in 1888, but it wasn’t sold until 1920. In the year 1929, Dr Earle Haas produced the first tampon.

Have You Heard About Menotoxin?

Around this time, a serious medical debate arose among intellectuals who proposed the conjecture that menstrual blood contained ‘menotoxin‘ a deadly substance that had the potential to pollute everything it came in contact with. Milk would turn sour; crops would wilt. The wild and speculative hypothesis felt to most of us a return to the dark ages of ignorance where truth had no place.

The shift in trend from sanitary aprons and cloth rags to tampons and sanitary napkins gives us a glimpse of the changing values in society. Imperialism brought Western culture and ideas to the doorstep of colonized nations like India, and in the 20th-century women found their place in fields of science, medicine, education, sports, defence and law. The Constitution replaced religious scriptures as doctrine, with access to education and political rights women realized that they could not afford to confine themselves at home even during menstruation. Hence, working women opted for pads and tampons as they were easier to travel in and work efficiently.

Capitalism And Menstruation

By 1980, sanitary napkins emerged as the more affordable menstrual product all over the global market. Globalization brought mass-produced menstrual products to India; menstruators found these hygiene products available in their nearest stores at reasonable prices. Amid availability and affordability, the environmental impact of these plastic products took a backseat.

This brings us to our present scenario; India produces 12.3 million disposable pads each year without any proper menstrual waste management procedures in place. Sanitary products are disposed of in open landfills without incineration or recycling. Used sanitary products pose a threat to not only flora and fauna, but also the health of the healthcare workers.

Blood Safai considers menstruation as a public health issue, irrespective of gender. We offer the platform to raise awareness on the impact of improper menstrual waste management and campaign to bring about a sustainable change in society.

Sign and share our petition here!

Featured image courtesy of Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (Florentine, 1444/45-1497), Chaste Women in a Landscape
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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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