Menstruation or periods is a topic we rarely hear being talked about in our society. Let alone being discussed publicly, even at homes, mothers choose to talk about it to their growing up daughters in hushed tones, behind closed doors.
This post has been sitting in a draft in my mind ever since I started this blog, but could only find a vent in words after the happenings of the last month in my corner of the world. My domestic help Sujata* came home looking very worried. She had paid a visit to the gynaecologist with her 21-year-old daughter Vandana* who had been facing repeated uterine infections and miscarriages since her marriage around three years ago. Following repeated examination and many tests came to fore a startling revelation that was quite a shocker to me. Vandana had been contracting infection due to use of dirty rags during menstruation that failed every treatment her gynaecologist administered.
The outcome was blocked Fallopian tubes and other similar complications gravely affecting her reproductive capabilities, leading to several life threatening infections and worst of all a threat from her in-laws that they wanted Vandana’s husband to divorce her. It took me a while to realise that the tempest in Vandana’s life actually boiled down to unavailability of a sanitary napkin during her monthly period.
It might sound pretty ridiculous in today’s era where TV commercials of sanitary napkins state statistics that create a mirage as if 80% of our country’s population has access to the ‘value’ packs of one of the many sanitary brands.
Unfortunately, the reality is far from it. Vandana is an urban girl who makes her living working as a domestic help, is financially independent yet her spending a meagre sum on sanitary napkins is looked upon as ‘luxury’ hence ruthlessly denied in her home. The scene in rural parts of our country is still heart cringing.
About 81 per cent of rural women, according to the research, use cheap unsterilized clothes, sand, husk, and ash as alternatives to napkins. These alternatives can severely impact their health and reproductive ability.
“Menses is one of the most taboo subjects in India. There is a strong relationship between practices during menstruation and the prevalence of reproductive-tract infections. In many parts of India, women do not even have enough clothes to cover their body.” – Dr Anjali Kapoor, a gynaecologist at Fortis Hospital, told The Times of India.
Besides poverty,the major reason that I feel is behind this violation of human rights (I see it that way, because women are being denied the right to personal hygiene during a physiological phenomenon in their bodies) are the social beliefs drummed in our heads.
I am sure we all have noted an air of discomfort fill in our living rooms as soon sanitary pad TVC are aired, be it at the malls or the local grocery shops, sanitary pads are talked about in ‘Whisper’ (pun intended). Wrapped in newspaper or worse still in a classic black plastic bag to ‘hide’ it from the world (though it actually makes it more evident than otherwise). Not letting menstruating women participate in any auspicious or religious affairs, making them dine, dwell and even sleep in an isolated area as if they suffer from a communicable disease are some of the many ideas that do no more than favouring the growth of social injustice and pamper gender bias in ways often not monitored by statistics.
I can safely assume the social discrimination has flared far and wide because only women have periods. If men too could menstruate, would the scenario have been similar? Answering that could be pretty tough, for we live in a world where women are denied the right to life (gendericide – where fetuses and infants of only a specific gender are killed, a term I learnt from Evan Grae Davis’s talk in this video ).
Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- “For Those Light Bachelor Days.”
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.
What is the solution to this problem?
The very first step is to accept menstruation as a normal, physiological phenomenon in women. We need to stress on sex-education being made a mandate in schools, talked about on mass media to make the society understand the science behind menses.
Basic principles of maintaining personal hygiene and the possible complications in absence of it, should be made known to every girl.
Isolation or closing our eyes isn’t a desirable practise. Provisions for sanitary napkins, a healthy diet (rich in Iron to combat anaemia due to blood loss), analgesics for menstrual cramps and above all freedom to carry on with life normally, is the need for every menstruating woman.
Questioning age old myths and practices is the only way to change the ones that hold no scientific ground.
Menses isn’t about mess, but something planned by nature with bigger goals in mind for the continuation of human race.
Secondly, take bold steps and be inspired to support the ones already in action, like the ones taken by Arunachalam Muruganantham to make sanitary napkins available to rural women at affordable prices, about which he talks in the following video as part of the Franklin Templeton Investments who partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012.
Provision of a hygienic sanitary napkins to women of all strata and regions isn’t an act of privilege but something that should be considered a part of basic human rights.
Besides the sanitary napkins, another very useful product that can help resolve the hygiene concerns of rural women is the menstrual cup.
Menstrual cups can be washed and reused (so it’ll cut down recurrent expenses), can be made available at low costs, gives women freedom from worry of carrying sanitary pads or tampons hiding them from view. Besides, they sure are environment friendly, for they reduce the landfill significantly.
A video that has recently gone viral on Facebook caught my attention. It beautifully captures how a young girl ought to feel about her first period very different from what girls are made to feel when they menarche in India.
The joy of growing up is something to be treasured and celebrated and not to be ashamed of.
* Names changed to protect identity.