International Women's Day 2020: Let's make conversations and break taboos surrounding menstruation

A culture of shame is associated with menstruation in India. Image credit: By WASH United - https://www.flickr.com/photos/gtzecosan/17074816074/in/album-72157626959211983/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40233016

According to Krushnaswarup Dasji, women who cook during their periods will be reborn as dogs and those who eat food prepared by a menstruating woman at least once will be reborn as an ox. The man behind these hideous proclamations is the spiritual leader of the Swaminarayan Bhuj Mandir, the trust that runs Shri Sahajanand Girls Institute in Gujarat’s Bhuj, where 64 women students were recently subjected to humiliation treatment and forced to remove their underwear to prove whether they were menstruating or not. The college follows the archaic practice of segregating menstruating girls, not allowing them to enter the kitchen or have physical contact with other students.

While an FIR was registered against the Bhuj college and the college principal, hostel warden and two women assistants were booked by the police, the incident reveals the regressive mindset that remains in society when it comes to menstruation. It also reveals the paradoxical way in which menstruation is looked at in the country. On the one hand, the attainment of menarche or a girl’s first period is celebrated in some communities in the country, while on the other hand, women or girls on their periods are often looked upon as untouchables.

A dismal picture

Unfortunately, due to lack of information and the taboo and myths that surround menstruation, health and hygiene take a backseat. This is dangerous as unhygienic menstrual practices have been known to increase chances of Reproductive Tract Infections, fungal infections, Pelvic Inflammatory Diseases, cervical cancer, and, in some cases, infertility as well.  

As per a report by WaterAid-UNICEF, up to two-thirds of girls in South Asia do not know about menstruation before starting their periods, while one in three miss school every month during their periods. Hygiene is overlooked during menstruation. The National Family Health Survey reveals that only 57.6 per cent women in India use sanitary napkins (48.5 per cent in rural areas and 77.5 per cent in urban areas).  Many women, especially from the rural areas of the country, still use rags, leaves, or even sand and ash during their periods, as they do not have access to affordable sanitary napkins. In some instances, women and girls are not even allowed to take a bath for the first two days of their periods.

Further, in many rural communities across the country, girls and menstruating women are forced to live in isolation, often in small huts away from the family, until their period of ‘impurity’ gets over. These huts are not cleaned or maintained and most of them lack electricity or even proper toilet facilities.

Conversations matter:

Cultural beliefs of impurity restrict girls and women from participating in religious rituals during their periods. Regressive and baseless beliefs such as those prohibiting menstruating women and girls from entering the kitchen, participating in daily household affairs, or touching water and pickle, in the belief that it will get spoilt, remain. What makes these practices even more disappointing is that they are often enforced by women in the family and are followed without a question. And these taboos are not just restricted to the villages of India - there are still many families in the cities in which such customs are followed.

So, how do we break the taboos that are associated with menstruation? Here are some steps that we can take to fight regressive attitude:

  • Talk: Make conversations around menstruation more commonplace at home. Involve family members, children who are old enough to understand and male members of the family. Sensitise them so that they understand that menstruation is not a disease or anything to be ashamed of, but a natural process which is required for the existence of life.

  • Use the right terminology: There around 5,000 slangs for periods, as per period tracker app Clue and the International Women’s Health Coalition, ranging from ‘that day of the month’, ‘Aunt Flo’, and ‘strawberry week’, to ‘I am untouchable.’ Avoid them and use medical terms such as periods and menstruation instead.

  • Break barriers: Nobody has the right to prohibit you from going anywhere, nor do you have the right to stop anyone from entering the kitchen or interacting with others. Understand that and bring about a change in your household if such archaic practises are still followed.

  • Break superstitious beliefs: The most common one being that women are impure during their periods. This is because of a myth that originated during the Vedic times and Indra's slaying of Vritras. According to the myth, the guilt of killing a Brahmin was too much for Indra to bear and so he hid in a flower and prayed to Lord Vishnu. He was then granted a wish whereby he could mitigate the guilt by dividing it. A part of this curse was taken on by women and the menstrual flow that comes every month. Hence, the belief of sin and practise of isolation continues till today without any scientific reason for it.

  • Understand what menstruation is: Scientifically, menstruation happens because the body is readying itself for pregnancy. Every month, the lining of the uterus thickens, an egg grows for fertilisation and is released from one of the ovaries in preparation for pregnancy. When a pregnancy does not happen, the body releases the lining and tissues it does not need, which comes out as blood.

    In the last couple of years, primarily due to social media, conversations around menstruation have become more mainstream. Individuals like Arunachalam Muruganathan, the inspiration behind the Hindi film Padman, Tuhin Paul and Aditi Gupta, the brains behind Menstrupedia an online platform which engagingly explains periods, and organisations such as Goonj, which makes low-cost sanitary pads from waste material, are helping break the stigma that surrounds menstruation and make lives for women easier.

    However, a lot more has to be done to rid the country of the social and cultural stigma associated with menstruation - only then can we ensure a healthy and safe woman population. So, this International Women’s Day, let us make conversations around menstruation more commonplace and banish the taboos and myths surrounding them.