Remember when in standard 6, all the girls were asked to assemble in the school’s hall or library? While some of the girls knew the reason behind us being called, for others this was just an unknown territory which from that time onwards would be a topic to be spoken about only in whispers.
The female teachers told us how our bodies would be changing as we hit puberty; how we need to wear bras to cover our developing breasts and pads for when we bleed. But all this information was conveyed to us with a reminder in every other sentence, that we should not discuss this with the boys of our class.
Now imagine the surprise of an 11-year-old, who was never informed about periods, because of the taboo this topic was made up into, who is now suddenly thrown into this limbo and left to suffer it in silence.
We were asked to hide the pads while we carry them to the washrooms in our pockets and feel our cheeks getting flushed when by mistake any boy opens the front chain of our school bag, only to find a pad wrapped around in a green plastic cover. This would be only be followed by snarky comments and sly laughs of the boys and second-hand embarrassment faced by all the girls.
Since then, we have grown up buying menstrual products from medicinal stores wrapped in newspapers, denied entry to temples and shrines, sneakily checked our friend’s skirt for if they have stained or not, and silently cried during cramps.
The concept of period shaming is so deep-rooted in our society that young girls are made to believe that they are impure and unclean for a bodily function that is completely natural and inevitable. The Bhuj Incident of 2020 where 68 college students were forced to remove their underwear to prove if they are menstruating or not showcases one of the many examples of humiliation and barbaric situations which menstruators have to face.
Incidents such as girls forced to drop out of school, undergoing hysterectomy to increase productivity, being banished to live in period huts, being forced to live in dark rooms and denial of food as well as coercing them to marry a banana tree are some of the dehumanizing practices which highlight how the Right to Dignity of a menstruator under Article 21 is time and again being denied.
The Menstrual Hygiene Scheme launched by the government amongst various other schemes focuses upon providing sanitary napkins at a subsidized rate to adolescent girls in rural areas. However, despite the various schemes initiated, a WHO survey pointed out how 43% of Indian woman have no access to sanitary napkins. Moreover, according to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), out of the 336 million girls in India more than 60% of adolescent girls use old cloth during menstruation and 71% have no prior idea about periods.
This lack of awareness stems from the absence of active discussion and understanding of women’s bodies. Patriarchy and misogyny have objectified a woman’s body as something that elicits sexual desires, is godly or arouses repulsion. A woman’s body has turned into a symbol of a family’s honour or the source of sexual, political and social violence and hence, a woman’s body is only dignified and respectable if it is hidden and not discussed.
But for how much longer will we allow these dogmatic and obsolete views to influence our present? Why should menstruation be associated with shame and disgust when it is the only form of blood bled without violence? Why should girls be considered impure and restricted from visiting sacred places and temples when Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in the Sabrimala Judgment stated how the social exclusion of woman based on their menstrual status is a form of untouchability forbidden under Article 17 of the Indian Constitution?
Now that period shaming and the subsequent problem of period poverty has become a burning issue, why are we still silent around the topic of menstruation? Is it for the sake of patriarchy and a family’s frail honour? Because in no way could this be for a woman’s welfare as no purity, honour, and dignity can be availed at the expense of a woman’s life. The only way forward from here is to break the silence, normalize healthy talks around menstruation, and raise our voice in incorporating menstrual health and hygiene in the political agenda.