Written by Sukanya Chaudhury
“Pollution may be temporary or permanent, voluntary or involuntary and may fall on any member of the society. The first and the later menstruation, as well as delivery, are periods of specifically female pollution (even though women’s impurities may spread to others) of the involuntary type.”
The aforementioned line of thought and belief, as noted by Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi in her work ‘Anthropos’, was reflective of the menstrual scene in Tamil Nadu back in the 1970s. At the time of a woman’s ‘impurity’, she was reduced down to an untouchable who was prohibited from coming in contact with other persons as well as their objects.
In fear of being possessed by evil spirits and the harm which was believed to be inflicted on men if they set their eyes on a menstruating woman, the need for temporary segregation of the menstruators took a seat above the need for menstrual health and hygiene. Such was the fantastical apprehension regarding vaginal blood that the menstruating women were considered to be the lowest of the untouchables, also known as ‘Candala’.
As comical and unreal the stated facts may read, one cannot negate the gravity of the same backwardness which still persists in today’s society. Not just the unscientific notions of the presence of ‘evil spirits’, but the very existence of casteism has allowed the Indian mindset to wander as far as considering a woman untouchable during her periods.
Allocating the menstruator a small corner in the house or, in most cases as seen in the rural areas, an outhouse, was and still is a common practice. With no proper menstrual products at their disposal, women are often left to use plain cloth or sand and mud to deal with their flow. This, undoubtedly, makes women prone to several uterine infections and diseases. Lack of proper nutrition and the required hygiene is what makes menstruation an incredibly uncomfortable and hurtful period for most women in India.
Menstruation is a biological and a very fundamental aspect of the existence of the human race. However, the man-made notion of caste segregation, ironically, occupies a more important role in the functioning of our country. The percentage of internet users in India, as per Digital 2020: India, is reported to be 50%. With a little over 650 million internet users in the country as of January 2020, about 29% are active users of social media.
When the statistics are further delved into, one notices the stark contrast between the 29% of female internet users to that of 71% of male internet users. This directs us to the evident fact that talks about menstrual health management (MHM) and menstrual health education on social media percolates very little into the society- with the vast majority, including the menstruators, still staying unaware of it.
This particular parity can be attributed to the class distinction, which has been enhanced severely due to the existence of castes. If compared to India a few decades back, the situation related to caste distinction and discrimination in the present times is relatively less if not the same. Now, instead of deliberate distinction, it is more of a subconscious institution which exists where only the urban and semi-urban people get access to such awareness programs and are made part of conversations.
Though useful in advocating correct information and debunking common social stigma, the main problem still remains untouched. The urban population, even if not completely aware, has access to clean sanitary products whereas the rural population lacks both. The system of India is such that the difference between the cities and the villages, regarding any aspect, is too vast to be bridged anytime soon. Starting from the lack of education and the existing dogmas surrounding menstruation, it is only given that MHM should be taking a backseat in the list of problems that requires an immediate solution. This is applicable to all castes and tribes in India, excluding only the ‘elite’ metropolitan population.
The depths of the situation can be well understood through the number of girls in semi-rural and rural India who drop out of schools at the onset of their menstruation. About 23 million girls drop out every year with the highest percentage being in Uttar Pradesh (66%). This is primarily due to the lack of privacy, the restrictions imposed on girls and is also dependent on the type of absorbents used. In cities, however, cases of school drop-outs because of menstruation is almost nil but has about 40% of students who remain absent during the days of their periods.
Talks about menstruation have helped a significant percent of the urban population. However, it still remains incomplete and incompetent if it fails to reach the rural population which forms the major bulk of India. Like feminism, talks about equality wasn’t complete until the Third Wave that brought about the inclusion of the intersectional perspective. Similarly, no positive changes regarding menstruation can be brought about if menstruators of the lower castes, tribes as well as trans-men and non-binary persons are not included in the conversations of it.