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‘Menstruating Woman Rots Flower Plants’ And Other 19th Century Period Myths

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.

Before the 19th century, Indian doctors barely realized that periods were associated with ovulation and the menstrual cycle. It was often thought that women needed to bleed in order to cool their emotional stress and hysterical outbreaks.

The Origin Of Myths Around Menstruation

Besides, it was also believed that menstruating women led to infertile cows, rotting of flower plants when touched, etc. However, India presents a unique transition to menstruation which has left probable effects till today.

Legends suggest that the orthodoxy is connected to the Vedic times which hoists the story of Indra’s slaying of the Vritras which leads to the guilt of killing “a Brahmana” which haunts women every month and the bottom-line is that menstruation occurs in women to eradicate the guilt of all humankind. This deterred a woman from participating in daily life till she is “purified“.

Representational Image. Before the 19th century, it was often thought that women needed to bleed in order to cool their emotional stress and hysterical outbreaks.

Legends suggest that the orthodoxy is connected to the Vedic times which hoists the story of Indra’s slaying of the Vritras which leads to the guilt of killing “a Brahmana”.

Sinu Joseph, an Indian menstrual health activist, travelled across India to spread awareness about the origins of certain 19th-century practices. She found out that in some areas, the story of the menstrual rituals concerning the Vedic times was repelled and menstruating women were worshipped as a “living goddess”. During their periods, women were restricted from worshipping to avoid the idols from becoming lifeless and powerless.

She also noted that in some cultures like that in Manipur, blood was respected and the cloth used at menarche was mandatory to be kept and gifted once the girl gets married to protect her from the “evil eye.”

The Practice Of “Body Purity And Pollution” In Hinduism

Another practice of celebrating and worshipping menstruation is centuries old – the famous temple of Kamakhya in the state of Assam where the Ambubachi Mela or the four-day celebration is held. The presence of red-soaked cloth all around marks the symbol of the menstruation of the goddess that is later distributed among devotees.

In some regions in India, there prevailed a practice of “body purity and pollution” in Hinduism. Bodily excretions were believed to pollute water resources, and all women, despite their caste were made to believe that they polluted the water by menstruation and childbirth. This signifies the reason for not allowing the menstruating women to bath, while they were on their periods.

In the 19th century India, to commemorate the ritual of garbandhan, the first of the ten fundamental Hindu life cycle, rites in which girls merely ageing 8-9 were married off and were forced into sexual cohabitation within fifteen days of her menarche.

This proved futile and reflected directly on the health of women, leading to early deaths, death of the fetus in the womb, and the damage to the sexual organs in some cases, leading to infertility.

The Vision Of Freedom To Bleed Freely

This Hindu ritual was challenged by intellectuals and the Indian reformers, only to raise the age of sexual content by merely two years to reduce the numbers of child bride mortality. But the scenario of ill-menstrual health has had no change.

A direct transition to menstrual products is noticed to have emerged from the late 19th century which was marked by the use of wood pulp bandages from rags, taking into consideration hygiene. What we today called a pad was perhaps a homemade menstrual cloth made of flannel.

The first product in India was the Southhall pad. It was predominantly marketed by the Europeans, later embraced by the Indian elites. Rubber pants (under-wears lined with rubber) were also highly marketed among the European colonies.

The stigma attached to menstruation, however, has no end, whether the roots lie in the 19th century or not. Different menstruation practices, cultures, and rituals have affected both physical and mental health. Though not much difference to the taboos is spotted till date, yet freedom to bleed freely and responsibly is being envisioned.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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