Hushed voices, sweaters tied around their waists, black polythene bags- these are the things associated with menstruation. Every girl’s most dreaded secret. Menstruation, a taboo term, is shrouded in mystery and silence and treated with disgust. Even though it is entirely natural, we commonly assume it as a disease. Why has a natural biological process that happens to every female become a source of condemnation and shame? It is a process vital to the survival and propagation of our species, and yet we shame girls for it.
What is menstruation?
Menstruation, more commonly known as periods, the regular discharge of blood and mucosal tissue from the inner lining of the uterus through the vagina. It usually begins between the ages of 12-15 years and continues until around 50 years of age. The uterus lining thickens in preparation for accepting a fertilized egg. If pregnancy does not occur, the uterus lining sheds. The uterus once again prepares for fertilization, and the cycle repeats itself on a monthly basis. Various hormonal changes follow.
Menstruation is an entirely natural process that ensures the continuation of our species. When a girl menstruates, she has to deal with it in a hygienic manner. This is to prevent adverse health effects, from using the right sanitary products, changing it at the right time and to its disposal. The only way a girl would be able to learn about the dos and don’ts of menstruation is if we talk about and teach it to adolescents.
How does Indian society treat menstruation?
Menstruation is amongst the most tabooed topic in India. Unfortunately, this silence has only caused us harm. Indian society treats menstruation as a repulsive phenomenon that a girl should be ashamed about. The problem with how India treats menstruation is varied and rooted in misinformation. A very common notion about periods is that it is a sign of impurity. Women are not allowed into religious spaces or even into their own kitchens due to fear of contamination of these areas. However, menstrual fluid is merely a combination of blood, tissue, plasma and bodily bacteria that everyone has. So, scientifically, there is nothing unclean about this.
Effect Of Education
The teaching method for most of the youth is another issue. Only a few youths know about menstruation. The topic is so shameful, that most teachers and parents avoid any discussion of it. A study found that 66% of girls in India report having no knowledge of menstruation before their first period. Even though it is mentioned in all state prescribed textbooks, this topic is glazed over or just ignored. The few adolescents that are taught about this, are not taught about the health aspects of menstruation, but about what a girl should not do when she is on her period, and how best to conceal the fact that she is menstruating, from others.
Miseducating the youth leads to the propagation of dangerous myths. Boys don’t get the knowledge of the topic. Exclusion of males from the conversation on menstruation is a huge mistake. Menstruation is a natural process, and males need to know how the process works, and how it affects the body of a woman. Proper education on the topic is vital to ensure that girls deal with menstruation in a hygienic way.
According to the National Family Health Survey- 4, less than 50% of women in India use sanitary methods when dealing with periods. Another study found that 28% of Indian girls do not go to school during their period, due to lack of facilities and materials. Lack of materials often leads to unhygienic methods of dealing with periods, like the use of rag cloths instead of sanitary products. This ignorance harms the health and education of girls.
Many women do not use sanitary products like pads or tampons because of the high price of these products. In India, there is an estimated 70% who cannot afford sanitary napkins. Under GST, there is a 12% tax levied on sanitary products, making a necessity too expensive for many women. This makes women neglect sanitary products and resort to unsanitary alternatives.
How are these taboos harmful?
These taboos lead to the spread of harmful myths related to periods, which have harsh consequences. 23% of girls in rural India cite periods as their reason for quitting school. Education is vital for the progress of our country and myths on menstruation should not have the power to hinder it. Hygiene is extremely important when it comes to menstruation, and yet 14% of girls in India report suffering from menstrual infections. In India, women use many unsanitary items to absorb the blood, such as old rags, dry leaves, newspapers, grass, and others either due to unawareness of the products to use or because of the high price of these products.
How can we change society’s outlook on menstruation?
The most obvious and simplest way is to increase awareness. However, considering the fact that most stores still sell sanitary napkins wrapped in newspapers placed in black polythene bags, this task will be difficult, but not unachievable. Ensuring that pads and other sanitary products are readily available at affordable prices is an important step in promoting hygiene of women in India.
Although the situation is still quite bleak, efforts are needed to de-stigmatize this issue. For instance, Menstrupedia is a guide to periods started by Aditi Gupta, Tuhin Paul and Rajat Mittal which uses creative ways, like comic strips to educate the masses. The works of people like Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented the machine that makes low-cost pads can help make pads more accessible to the common public.
The new movie Padman based on Arunachalam’s work moves towards normalizing the issue. Normalising menstruation is the key. Menstruation is a natural and healthy process. Any related stigma must perish. We need to move towards a world with no discrimination against women for a natural, biological process.