Periods have been considered a taboo in this country for a long time and menstruating women have been tagged impure. Women across the country are a victim to the stigma of menstruation. Although in recent years, these age-old ideas have been increasingly challenged, especially by urban educated women, the reality is that the stigma is still prevalent.
Although societal stigma itself is bad enough, there are instances where this stigma extends into employment issues. Mostly in these instances, people from the poorer sections of society are the ones affected the most, which is often exploited by some employers.
Thus, a large majority of women, especially those coming from lower-income families, with no agency and no education, are forced to form choices that have long-term and irreversible impacts on their health and their lives.
At the more extreme end of this same societal impact of menstrual stigma is a situation currently being uncovered in Maharashtra where it has been revealed by the Indian media that thousands of young women have undergone voluntary surgical procedures to remove their wombs otherwise known as hysterectomy. This disturbing practice is ultimately leading to the creation of “villages of womb-less women”.
Tens of thousands of poor families from Beed, Osmanabad, Sangli, and Solapur districts migrate every year to the sugar belts in the more affluent western districts of the state where they work for six months as cutters in sugarcane fields.
Although among them some of the women are in their forties who are almost at an end of their reproductive age, many of those who agree to remove their womb are in their twenties. These women typically come from impoverished families making the extreme decision a harsh reality they face in order to gain employment.
Some of them are married young and have no choice but to take up the work to support their children due to pressing financial conditions. Most of these women are involved in sugarcane harvesting. There, they’re at the mercy of greedy contractors who use every opportunity to take advantage of them.
First of all, they are reluctant to hire women because cane-cutting is hard work. Moreover, during the harvesting period, employees are expected to be available to work at all hours of the day and night and women may miss a day or two of work during their periods.
Additionally, they also require paying a penalty for missing a day’s work. This then leaves little to no time for rest or adequate washing — leaving menstruators open to fatigue or infections related to lack of sanitation.
The living conditions at their work-place are far from hygienic – they have to live in huts or tents close to the fields, there are no toilets, and as harvesting is sometimes done even at night so there are no fixed working hours and this affects their sleep cycles.
And when women get their periods, it just makes the situation worse and their struggles more profound. Due to the unhygienic conditions, many women get infected and unscrupulous doctors encourage them to undergo unnecessary surgeries even if they visit for a minor gynaecological problem which can be easily treated with medicine.
As most women in these areas are married at a young age, many have two to three children by the time they are in their mid-20s. Owing to the lack of awareness and misleading information by the doctors, many believe that it’s alright to get rid of their wombs.
These women are making permanent long term decisions regarding their body, without being informed of their disastrous effects. The surgeries lead to persistent pain in the back, neck, and knee and also swollen hands, face, and feet in many women. For some of them, these issues, unfortunately, meant that they can no longer work.
The instances in Maharashtra demonstrate the more extreme end of the spectrum, with drastic or unsafe practices putting lives directly in danger. These incidences glaringly point at the harsh reality that women daily face in the workplace, which gets more extreme and pronounced for the lower income group people.
From the lack of basic healthcare and sanitation to exploitation, it creates a really inhumane situation. Even trying to earn the bread for the family comes with a string attached, leading them to their demise.
Awareness among these illiterate labourers along with strict actions taken against the people misleading them and exploiting them may lead to a better future.
The government and health professionals really need to step up their game to provide them with the basic necessities for survival, from healthcare and better working conditions to food, shelter, and education. Furthermore, information and awareness about hygienic menstrual practices could aid in normalising menstruation.