Indians fear menstruation; even in 2021, they lack awareness; they do not understand how to deal with it; some buy into twisted superstitions and some – sadly – consider it impure. The hush-hush attitude adopted by people when it comes to a very basic, natural bodily process is upsetting. The stigma attached to menstruation has led to lack of access to information and basic health facilities.
Some people consider menstruation impure and do not let a menstruating woman enter a temple or a kitchen, as it is believed that she will pollute whatever she touches. I have a very wealthy, educated friend who tells me she is not allowed to enter the kitchen by her mother during her “time of the month”. Clearly, the stigma is deep-rooted, if exposure to information, education and even wealth, does not stop people from holding such misconceptions. People believe that this restriction is rooted in our culture-wrong.
In ancient days, women were told not to enter the kitchen or do any housework during menstruation was due to the fact that families had at least 30-40 members each, many domesticated farm animals such as cows and buffaloes and a plethora of activities to take care of, which required a lot of physical exertion. In such a situation, a menstruating woman was told to rest as the pressure of housework was immense and could impact her health negatively. Gradually, this evolved into women not being pure during those 5-7 days, and hence, women today are told to refrain from touching anything.
In ancient India, temples were far and few. Devotees needed to travel long distances, cover uneven terrain and deal with wild animals on the way. (The point about wild animals may seem odd to us, but the hormones secreted by our bodies during menstruation have a particular scent, picked up by wild animals’ sharp sense of smell; if this is difficult to believe, one should observe a dog’s behaviour around a menstruating woman, vis-à-vis its behaviour when she’s not menstruating.)
Clearly, these factors would make the journey very inconvenient for menstruating women, putting them at risk of physical strain and attack by animals. Hence, they were told to stay at home while other members of the family set off on their journey. Today, it is believed that women should absolutely not enter temples even the small ones we build inside our homes.
Eventually, this gave rise to the notion that menstruation is considered impure by our Vedic culture. This could not be farther from the truth.
In many parts of India, we celebrate the commencement of a teenaged girl’s menstruation; in Orissa, there is a 3-day long festival called Raja Parba, where it is said that Mother Earth is menstruating, and thus, it calls for a celebration; in temples like Kamakhya Devi Mandir, certain days of a month are set aside, when men cannot enter as the Goddess is said to be menstruating. When our culture is rife with so many examples where menstruation has its own place, then who are we to consider it impure?
The unawareness surrounding menstruation is risky; even if one overlooks the restrictions it places on the social activities and movements of a menstruating woman, it is hard to overlook the implications of this on her health. Less than 40% women in India today use sanitary napkins. For some, it is out of their budget; some women grew up using clothes in place of pads and therefore, consider the latter wasteful; some women still do not know what sanitary napkins are.
In rural India, it is common for women to use everything from plastic bags, to mud and leaves; since they are given a separate place outside their homes during their menstruating days, they sometimes simply use the same dirty cloth over and over again. This is dangerous. Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is a rare but serious illness that has its roots in lack of menstrual hygiene. It does not sound as dangerous, but it leads to multiple health issues owing to bacterial infection of the blood. It eats up your body from the inside.
TSS is just one condition emanating from lack of menstrual hygiene. Reproductive Tract Infections, Hepatitis B, yeast infections, Urinary Tract Infections are fairly common. Bad menstruation practices also increase a woman’s chances of getting afflicted with Cervical Cancer later in life.
Over 50% girls in India did not know what menstruation was when they got their first period. A lot of girls end up panicking, thinking they are dying or have some strange infection which is causing them to bleed. In rural regions, girls drop out of schools after they start menstruating, because of the stigma, lack of hygiene, unavailability of toilets, the pain and discomfort it causes them, or simply because they do not have access to sanitary napkins. Even if some girls don’t drop out, they miss a minimum of 5 days of school every month due to the factors listed above. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine the negative effects of menstrual misinformation on young girls’ education.
It is interesting that despite many initiatives, awareness campaigns, pad supply drives, etc. the condition of menstruating women has still not improved. The ease with which they buy into the notion of “impurity”, the high cost of pads which deters poorer women from buying them, the shame that comes from a small stain on their dress has pushed rural women behind their urban counterparts.
I am lucky to be born in a family where this was never an issue. I have access to sanitary napkins, gynecologists in my times of need, information on the internet whenever I require some health tip. I know which tablet to consume to put an end to some very painful cramps every month. I know which apps can effectively track my cycle and accordingly plan my monthly activities. I can take part in internet debates about “Whether or not women should be allowed to take a paid-leave from work during their periods?”
But what about so many girls who have been held back just because of a bodily function, meant to last for at least 30 years of their lives? All they need is 20 pads every month to take on the world, and the society fails to give them even that.
The biggest issue, as I stated at the start of my article, is lack of information. Attach false religious notions and social stigma, along with a little shame and you have the perfect excuse for keeping women away from education and professional opportunities. Menstruation is natural, it is essential. Our culture has always held women in high regard; there is no way it can turn away from something that is inherent in us. We are because menstruation is. What created us cannot be impure.