Author: Surbhi Bassi
On 15th August 2020, something revolutionary happened. No, unfortunately, it wasn’t a vaccine for corona. However, the Prime Minister of India talked about menstruation. Yes, calling it revolutionary might be a hyperbole, but for a country like India where the term “periods” is talked about in hushed tones around households, where menstruating women are considered impure and excluded from religious and community events, where shopkeepers make a point to double wrap pads in black/opaque bags, and where millions of girls drop out of schools every year because of their periods, the Prime Minister talking about menstruation in front of the entire country is indeed a huge leap forward.
Menstruation, a purely biological phenomenon, is considered a huge taboo in this country. There is huge stigma, misconceptions and misinformation associated with it. The taboo around menstruation is a form of misogyny and has conditioned females in this country to believe that periods are something to be hidden, something shameful. As a young female living in this country in the 21st century, I feel sad that the first time I heard about menstruation, I associated it with negative connotations. Luckily, I belong from a family with highly educated parents and when the nine-year-old-me approached my parents about the same, I was given a scientific and logical explanation about periods. I was explained the science behind them and also informed about the misinformation that I might encounter from the outside world. However, millions of young girls in this country aren’t as lucky as I was and are conditioned to believe that they are the “weaker” sex just because they menstruate, that they shouldn’t enter kitchens and places of worships, that they are impure and dirty during their period, and that anything they touch will be ruined.
About 70 female students at an institute of higher education in Gujarat’s Bhuj were pressured to remove their undergarments by their principal to prove that they were not menstruating. Unfortunately, this incident happened in the year 2020 only. In 2017, a 12-year-old school girl died due to suicide after her teacher shamed her for a period stain on her uniform. These incidents originating from institutes of education show the grimness of reality and how profound the ineducation about menstruation in modern India is.
The origin of menstrual taboos lies in the pre-language times and has been universal around different parts of the world, though, the reasons might have differed. Menstrual taboos are found in old scriptures from various religions. The following are some excerpts from various religious texts:
In Hinduism, it has been declared in a Veda
“For month by month the menstrual excretion takes away her sins. A woman in her courses is impure during three days and nights.” (Vasishtha Dharmasutra)1
In the Quran
“go apart from women during the monthly course, do not approach them until they are clean” (Quran 2:222)
In the Bible
“…in her menstrual impurity; she is unclean… whoever touches…shall be unclean and shall wash his clothes and bathe in water and be unclean until evening” (Leviticus 15)
and in the first Latin encyclopedia (73 AD)
“Contact with [menstrual blood] turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, seed in gardens are dried up, the fruit of trees fall off, the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled, hives of bees die, even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air; to taste it drives dogs mad and infects their bites with an incurable poison.”2
What we need to realise is that these taboos are pre-agricultural, pre-modern-brain and have been existing since before the birth of science. And it is extremely unfortunate that even in today’s scientific day and age, these taboos persist and women’s health is being compromised due to these unscientific claims and misconceptions.
Indeed, open discussion about menstruation and provision of more than 5 crore sanitary napkins for 1 rupee is something that the government should be lauded on, however, there still is a long way to go.
Even though females constitute about half of India’s population, yet, gender disparities remain a critical factor impacting females’ education, health and workforce participation. According to a study conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in India, up to adolescence, girls are on par with boys, but with the onset of puberty, outcomes for girls begin to diverge and girls face increasing restrictions to their mobility and agency. About 71% of girls in India report having no knowledge of menstruation before their first period. Over 23% of girls drop out of school when they begin menstruating. Over 77% of menstruating girls and women in India use an old cloth, which is often reused. Further, 88% of women in India sometimes resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and husk sand to aid absorption. And only 1 in 5 women have access to proper disposable sanitary napkins. 3
These statistics are a grim contrast to the fact that India is the fifth largest economy in the world. Change is imperative and the removal of this taboo is necessary for further development of India. Education will play a fundamental role in breaking this taboo associated with periods in India. Studies have shown that the physical environment of schools does not adequately support the needs of girls to manage their menstrual days, and does not provide strong social and emotional support.4 Proper education of young girls in schools should be ensured. Both boys and girls should be educated about menstruation and have sex-ed classes in their curriculums. Schools should promote open discussions about menstruation and ensure that pupils are free of inhibitions. Educative seminars should be organised for rural women by professionals so that through discussions about menstruation the hesitation can be removed and more women can be made aware about the various aspects of women’s health and menstruation including the adoption of the safe menstrual hygiene management. Universal provisioning of pads and other menstrual hygiene products should be ensured. The above suggestions are just the initial steps towards India’s tryst with menstruation.
Hopefully, soon India will gain independence from this stigma too and finally the red blood of females will be as celebrated as the Red Fort is on Independence Day!