The most common and stereotypical remarks one hears regarding mensurations is that “you are impure” or “dirty” just because you are menstruating. That you should not discuss this ‘shameful’ issue with anyone, even if you are struggling to understand it, along with the physiological, emotional and mental changes which are occurring simultaneously.
Mensuration, menses or periods is a natural biological part of many womxns reproductive cycle, and yet the stigma surrounding this phenomenon is evident all around the world. There is a major problem faced by womxn in India, which has a negative impact on their health and development. Young people miss out on school, work and significant life events as they are unable to practice proper menstrual hygiene due to the lack of sanitary products supplied to them.
Menstruation is an innate and normal process which prepares a womxns body to be able to bear children. In spite of it being a natural phenomenon, menstruation has been consistently viewed as a negative circumstance or an issue which should be concealed and not be discussed. Young people are told nothing regarding their menses until their first experience, even then nobody provides them with proper information. This ‘culture of silence’, where menstruation has been regarded as a quiet affair has taken the form of an embarrassment that womxn feel when talking about it in the open. This embarrassment is then internalised and directed towards their bodies. Young people don’t only grow up thinking that their body is betraying them but also that anything that has remotely something to do with periods is unpleasant and repulsive. For instance in this article, womxn were mocked and insulted by the villagers for doing the “dirty” work i.e., manufacturing pads. These womxn hide this fact by telling their family members and acquaintances that they are making pampers instead of sanitary napkins. Many of them were forced to leave employment due to the way they are treated.
Family members do not hold adequate conversations with young people about it, schools skip this topic from the curriculum entirely and society shames them about it. Where are these adolescents then supposed to educate themselves if nobody is willing to take the initiative? This results in ignorance and misinformation, which gives rise to poor hygiene and inadequate self-care practices. Sometimes, this even leads these young people into inventing their own ways or methods to handle the issues they are confronted with. Particularly in rural India, where womxn as well as young individuals hardly ever speak about the problems associated with their periods. They feel nervous talking about it due to the deep rooted socio-cultural taboos, myths and beliefs attached to it and this problem is further complicated by illiteracy. And if they happen to receive any information on menstruation, it is based on the inappropriate knowledge passed by either their peers or some family members. The social norms surrounding menses shape the way older womxn think about it, hence passing the limited information from their experiences from generation to generation. Many many of these young individuals who have just started their periods, end up believing that it is a disease and that they will die soon because of the sudden societal limitations levied on them.
Apart from the lack of information provided to them, menstruating females are subjected to several restrictions that they perform regularly on ‘normal’ days. These restrictions include: prohibition from entering the kitchen or touching certain kinds of foods, being forced to live outside the house while menstruating, prohibited from entering prayer rooms or touching any object of religious importance,
The stigma, the misconceptions, the ridicule, the discrimination and the embarrassment womxn have to face ever since they get their menstruation can have adverse affects on their mental health. This article talks about how a 13-year-old girl committed suicide because her teacher period-shamed her in front of the entire class and how a number of young people in a government-run school in North India were forced to remove their clothing to show whether they were menstruating or not.
As I was researching on this topic, I had come across so many articles describing the discrimination and stigma womxn and young individuals have to face because of a natural biological phenomenon that takes place every month, that is 12 times a year for 5-7 days per month. Every month womxn as well as young individuals are supposed to wash and dry the rags that they are supposed to use and because they are not comfortable drying them under the sun, they hide these cloths in dark and damp places making them susceptible to infections and bad period odour, for which again they are criticised.
How do we end the taboo?
The stigma young people and womxn face for their menstruation puts limitations on their behaviour and compromises their well-being. Hence, there are several steps one can take in eliminating the stigma, a significant move towards “menstrual justice”.
The best way to challenge this stigma, this discrimination, is by just simply talking about it openly, which may help increating a positive attitude. If periods were spoken about more openly, then womxn and young people might find it easier to acknowledge the positive aspects of it. Holding open and affirmative conversations about periods with family members can have help in eliminating some of the myths surrounding it. Not only talking and providing information to the female members of the family but also talking to men about it. Information to men is also provided in a very haphazard and indirect manner, and talking about this can help them understand the medical and health aspects of menstruation.
Teachers and instructors need to educate the younger generation rather than just skipping the topic entirely. They need to teach young people where to find or request adequate sanitation facilities. Young individuals need to be taught about the pain and discomfort of cramps and how to deal with them by showing them where to find the supplies they need. A number of superstitions, myths and misconceptions are passed down from generation to generation due to the menstrual taboos in religions and cultures. By breaking the silence and educating the younger generation can these myths be challenged and eradicated from the society.
Instead of labeling it as “dirty work”, affordable sanitary napkins can be made locally and distributed, especially in rural areas. By providing adequate materials and facilities for proper menstrual hygiene management, girls will spend less time wondering if they have soiled their clothes, allowing them to concentrate on classroom materials. This step allows girls to attend school regularly instead of missing it during their periods.
Another important way that can help in reducing the stigma is ‘social activism’. Activists drawing attention to the health and environmental hazards of menstrual hygiene products through organisations. This sort of effort could help people to understand the extent to which the social stigma of menstruation is fueled by consumerism. In spite of their role in breaking the misconceptions associated with the menstrual taboo, the advertisements aired by the sanitary napkin companies fail to tackle or deal with the main reason outlining these taboos, the red blood. Instead they depict a white or a blue jelly substance. As the blood is the only visible part regarding menstruation and is regarded as impure, not showing it or making it visible, the ad may end up losing its effectiveness in busting or smashing the myths.
By spreading awareness and having conversations about the role of periods in womxn’s psychological and physical health, and by normalizing menstruation, we can go a long way towards reducing it’s stigmatized status.