Dissipating the ignorance
It is an ordeal that adolescent and young girls and women have to go through once a month. Many suffer quietly in isolation. Menstruation is a normal biological process and a key sign of reproductive health. But many cultures treat periods as something negative, shameful, or dirty. It is considered a taboo in most settings—be it rural, urban, literate, or illiterate. Silence still surrounds menstruation.
When a girl starts menstruating, it signifies 'coming of age'. Rituals and celebrations follow. But thereafter, her tribulations begin from the second menses. In many settings, cultural mores take over.
Taboos, stigma, cultural beliefs, misconceptions, superstitions, and myths concerning menstruation help inflict indignity on millions of women and girls, who lead an ignominious existence. Almost always, there are social norms or unwritten rules and practices about managing menstruation and interacting with menstruating women.
They become 'impure, untouchable' and are quarantined; even in cowsheds! They are restricted from entering religious shrines, touching people or food in the kitchen - touching or eating pickles in particular. In some cultures, women are told not to bathe (or they will become infertile), touch a cow (or it will become infertile), look into a mirror (or it will lose its brightness), touch a plant (or it will die). Taboos exist in many countries including Afghanistan, Bolivia, Nepal, Japan, the UK, and the USA—in some form—signifying that many women and girls face discrimination.
Due to limited access to information, millions of women and girls across the world have very little knowledge about what is happening to their bodies during menses and how to deal with it. A UNICEF survey revealed that 10 per cent women in India believe that menstruation is a disease.
Scores of studies have reported on school absenteeism associated with menstruation. One in four girls miss one or more school days during menstruation with significant differences across regions in India. Reasons cited are physical discomfort or pain, lack of water, sanitation and toilet amenities in schools, hygiene, disposal facilities, fear of staining their clothes and restrictions imposed by relatives or teachers. The grave absence of facilities and appropriate sanitary products push menstruating girls out of school, temporarily and sometimes permanently.
Put together, women spend around six to seven years of their lives menstruating. Yet, the importance of menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is mostly neglected. The problems are further exacerbated by insufficient access to safe and clean toilets, and lack of clean water and soap for personal hygiene. As a result, menstruating girls and women often feel ashamed and embarrassed.
To manage menstrual flow, in some contexts, natural materials such as mud, leaves, dung or animal skins are used. Other single-use materials like toilet paper, tissue, or cotton wool tend to be locally available and relatively easily disposable, but can be costly, depending on location and quantities needed. Cloth is often easily accessible and low-cost, usually recycled from sheets, clothes etc., but can be uncomfortable and unhygienic if not properly washed and dried.
In India, only around 12 per cent of the 355 million menstruating women can afford sanitary protection. Even in the UK, 'period poverty' (unable to afford sanitary products) causes similar issues. But access to pads is only one aspect. Even buying sanitary pads comes with its own issues. Women often have to purchase them in a hush-hush manner.
Once used, disposal of soiled sanitary products also is a prickly problem. Effective solutions are absent. Most of them are thrown in the open, buried, flushed down drains or discarded in the trash. This way they can spread infections and have a serious and scary environmental impact. Incinerators may be a safe option as they combust them and are pollution free; but how many have access to them?
Age-old beliefs still continue due to lack of awareness and education, the key is to change attitude towards menstruation. Many women are denied their basic human right to manage menses safely and without stigma. They feel uncomfortable discussing menstrual hygiene in public.
While there has been some progress in developing comprehensive approaches to menstrual hygiene management (MHM), the role of men and boys in supporting menstrual hygiene has been lacking. Society needs to open up, and men must contribute to the discourse. Perhaps, male hero Padman is the first step.
A radio workshop, organised recently by UNICEF in Kolkata to create awareness, stressed on breaking the culture of silence associated with menstruation. "When a boy develops facial hair and mustache, his transition to adolescence is talked about. But, there is complete silence when a girl starts menstruating. Society must talk about it and include boys and men. Or else, curiosity and secrecy surrounding periods will continue," said Dibyendu Sarkar, Additional Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development Department, West Bengal.
The workshop, attended by RJs, radio producers, and journalists, recommended ways to sensitise and educate masses about MHM through jingles, spots and programmes on FM radio stations across regions, both private and public.
(The author is an independent journalist. The views expressed are strictly personal)