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Though periods are natural, why do we still go through hiding them and believing all the taboos around them? A teen analyses period taboos in India.
As a girl, and later as a woman, life throws numerous challenges and obstacles at us at almost every point of time. A lot of these challenges are born out of social and cultural impositions. The others, those that are natural are being given a social and cultural background.
In a prominently patriarchal society, women’s position has always been kept at sidelines and marginalised.From the Hindu religious textManusmriti to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, there is literary evidence that claim are women to be controlled and made submissive to the men.
The world, as it was hundreds of years ago, considered women an asset of the man, holding just as much value as his land, animals and crops. But in the modern world, the situation has dramatically changed, and for the better.
Women have progressed to claim what should have been given to them naturally. The world did not accept this change in status quo and the shifting scales of male dominated society with any ease. Earliest advocates for women’s rights and the precursors to the modern feminist movement had to fight battles against patriarchy.
Feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (first signatory of Declaration of Sentiments) fought for the future generations of women to have basic rights. These included the right to vote, education, property, marriage, among several others.
But, for addressing the battles and struggles led by women against patriarchy and misogyny, we need not turn to the reformers from the West. In India, the fight for women’s rights was, and still is, very different from that of the western world. As a matter of fact, any civil and human rights movement significantly depends on the geography, society, politics and economy of a country.
In India, the women reformers and women’s rights activists had to battle the deeply entrenched patriarchy mixed with religious and cultural orthodox practices that still are, a natural part of the Indian society. Savitri Bai Phule and Pandita Ramabai Ranade, among many others, are rightly considered to be the harbingers of the Indian women’s rights movement. They fought patriarchy embedded in every aspect in the life of an Indian woman – her birth, body, mind, marriage, disposition, and in the rarest cases, even her education.
One such issue in India that still has widespread ambiguity, silence and purdah around it is Menstruation. This silence about a naturally occurring process in a woman’s body is the evidence of the taboo that the female sexual health and sexuality is considered to be. To delve deep into this topic, let us first learn about the phenomenon.
Menstruation is the process of shedding of the uterine lining which is accompanied by bleeding on a regular monthly basis in the female body. It begins in girls at the onset of puberty around the age of 12-15 and ends with Menopause that occurs at around 45-50 years.
The first ‘periods,’ as they are referred to, are known as menarche and last periods are known as menopause. Periods also stop when a woman becomes pregnant and often do not resume until the initial stage of breastfeeding. Usually, the menstrual cycle gets renewed in 28-45 days, varying from person to person. The bleeding lasts for 5-7 days, it also varies from person to person.
Menstruation occurs to mark the onset of puberty in a girl’s life, which also means that she is capable of reproduction. Every month her body is prepared for pregnancy. The uterus lining thickens for the embryo to get embedded after the egg is released from the ovaries.
In the event of fertilisation, the future foetus would rest there until childbirth. But if there is no such event, this uterus lining sheds off in the form of blood through the vagina.
When a girl gets her period for the first time, she might feel some changes occurring in her body, including gloominess, laziness, lethargy and fatigue. These emotional and physical symptoms are known as Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS).
Many girls are unable to understand the normalcy of these changes and end up feeling ashamed and shy- this is due to the total lack of information. The important information about menstruation has customarily been withheld from girls and women in India.
Regular periods are a sign that the female body is working normally and it is healthy. But, there are some symptoms that indicate the malfunctioning in a woman’s body which could cause serious problems.
Some of these symptoms are painful cramps, absent periods, infrequent periods, short or light periods, frequent periods, heavy or long periods. In any such case, a doctor should immediately be consulted.
But, due to lack of information, girls are often unable to recognise any of these symptoms and end up suffering fatal consequences
Despite centuries of work towards women’s upliftment and empowerment, even today, menstruation is still considered ‘impure’ and ‘dirty.’ This taboo-impure-dirty definition of a natural biological process is being carried on by society as a cultural practice of the past.
The origin of this myth dates back to the Vedic times and is often linked to Indra’s slaying of Vritras, a demon. It has been written in the Vedas that the guilt of killing a Brahmana appears every month as the menstrual flow in women’s body, as women had taken upon themselves a part of Indra’s guilt.
This archaic and baseless theory has disrupted the normal lives of Indian women. In India, women who are menstruating are not allowed to live a normal life. They are prohibited from performing several day to day chores.
Many girls and women in rural and even urban India are restricted from entering temples from the fear of ruining the puja led by male brahmins. They are also confined from offering prayers and touching holy books. And are prohibited from entering the kitchen – the “supposed” territory of the Indian woman.
It is a widespread belief across rural and urban India that girls and women who are ovulating are impure, dirty and unhygienic. Anything they touch and possess is considered contaminated .
The many misconceptions about menstruation such as its association with evil spirits leads to shame and embarrassment to any issue surrounding female sexual health. In some parts of India, women bury the clothes they used during their menstruation to prevent the “evil spirits” from using them. Some believe that menstrual blood is dangerous and can be maliciously used to cause harm using Kala Jaadu (black magic).
The misinformation and orthodox beliefs are so prevalent, it is alleged that a woman can use another woman’s menstrual blood to “impose will” on her husband. It is also believed that if a girl touches a cow while she is menstruating, the cow becomes infertile.
These beliefs are widely popular and faithfully practised in a vast part of the nation. There is no scientific explanation and logic behind these beliefs. Yet a majority of Indian population goes on to practice them, as the patriarchal and misogynistic society dictates them.
Amidst all these the primitive beliefs, and practices that are an outcome of the patriarchal society, the only individual who suffers is the woman. Her sexual health has been put behind a lakshman rekha of obscurity and ambiguity and there seems to be no escape from centuries old traditions. These real obstacles in a woman’s life make her already difficult survival more unfortunate and inconvenient.
Such practices take a serious toll on women’s health. They are not provided with the basic yet necessary medical equipment like sanitary napkins. Sanitary pads are the most efficient tool to prevent any allergies and infections in a woman’s body while she menstruates.
An environment of shame and guilt has been built over the centuries about menstruating women. As a result, today’s adolescent girls and women feel insecure, ashamed and stigmatised about menstruating. Even if they overcome this shame to procure sanitary napkins, they are embarrassed to buy them from pharmacy stores run by men.
This results in women using unhygienic ways to handle their menstrual blood flow. These might be filling up old socks with cotton and old rags and using them to absorb blood. This rather risks their health and increases the possibility of infections like herpes and hepatitis.
A majority of adolescent girls and women in India remain unfamiliar to pads and have never even heard of it, let alone to have used it. In a report on ‘Menstrual Hygiene, Women’s Day Special’ by NDTV, it was put forth that less than 20 percent of girls and women use sanitary napkins in India.
The report also mentioned that every year, 23 million women drop out of school when they start menstruating. Some of them are forced by their families to do so and some do it with their own will.
The Indian Council for Medical Research’s 2011-12 report stated that only 38 percent menstruating girls spoke to their mothers about menstruation. And 70 percent of mothers with menstruating daughters considered menstruation as “dirty.” And that they also didn’t know how to manage menstruation in a hygienic manner. The research also said that schools are also not that helpful as many of them don’t educate their students about menstruation and sexual health.
This lack of knowledge is costing young girls and women their futures. It is a topic people are not too keen to talk about. They feel uncomfortable talking about sexual and reproductive health. These people don’t feel the need to make teenage girls aware about sex education and menstruation.
A key issue associated with menstruation is the disposal of the sanitary waste generated in the process. The old practices dictate that women burn the old, dirty and unhygienic cloth. It is a problem that needs to be addressed urgently.
Data by government health organisations show that every month, 353 million women and adolescent girls across India use sanitary products and generate menstrual waste. In urban areas, girls dispose the used sanitary napkins by flushing in toilets or by throwing them in trash with other waste. But in rural areas, women are still commanded to follow the old ritual of disposing by burning or burying in secrecy, away from the eyes of people.
So, along with generating awareness for not just women but men and boys too, proper steps should be initiated towards addressing the issue of sanitary waste disposal. Steps like special bins for menstrual waste and the use of incinerators are a few suggestions for adopting a healthier and hygienic approach for disposing the sanitary waste.
There is an urgent need for these reforms because it is high time to discard the traditions that put the baseless customs and beliefs above the health, life and well-being of a human. Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) must be an open topic. And information about menstrual hygiene and the sanitary products must be accessible to every girl and woman.
In fact, men should be educated about this issue in order to create awareness among the gender circles and divides about sexual and reproductive health.
Modern technology should be used by the government and respective authorities to create awareness about sexual health and menstruation. Applications and video based platforms should be used to spread the message of discarding taboos and embracing healthy ways to maintain hygiene in regards to the sexual health of women.
Thus, in this 21st century, we must look back to Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai Ranade, Tarabai Shinde, Raja Ram Mohan Roy. These people who dedicated their lives to uplift the poor, empower the women and give equal strength to every individual, need to be looked up too.
They abolished the inhumane Sati Pratha and other misogynistic practices. And now it is our chance to abolish the stigmatisation of menstruation.
Let us all embrace their teachings, and together fight to defeat the enemy that resides in the archaic and obsolete customs of the patriarchal society.
Picture credits: Still from Whisper’s Break The Silence campaign
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