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A Teenager’s Analysis of Menstrual Health in the Indian Society

June 15, 2020
 by Samriddhi Sharma
[Editor’s note: We are thrilled to have 13-year-old Samriddhi Sharma write this article for us and speak so confidently about a taboo subject that Indian girls, even now, cannot openly discuss].
File:Amra Padatik India.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia

As girls and women, we face numerous challenges and obstacles that our societies throw at us. A lot of these challenges are born of social and cultural impositions. In a society like ours that has been prominently patriarchal throughout history, women have always been kept on the sidelines and marginalised.
From the Hindu religious text of Manusmriti to the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, there is literary evidence that women were controlled and made submissive to the male patriarchy. A woman was considered to be an asset of man, just like his land, animals and crops. In the modern world, the situation has changed 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 a male dominated society with any ease. Earliest advocates for women’s rights and the precursors to the modern feminist movement such as Mary Wollstonecraft (author of
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (first signatory of Declaration of Sentiments) had to fight battles against the patriarchy for the future
generations of women to have the basic rights of voting, education, property, and marriage, among many other rights.
But for addressing the battles and struggles led by women against patriarchy and primitive, amoral & misogynistic orthodoxy, we do not necessarily have to 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 brave women reformers and women’s rights activists had to battle the deeply seated patriarchy along with the associated religious and cultural orthodox practices that were, and still are, a part of the Indian people. The great Savitri Bai Phule and Pandita Ramabai Ranade, among many other brave women, are rightly considered to be the harbingers of the Indian women’s rights movement. They fought patriarchy that was embedded in every aspect in the life of an Indian woman- in her birth, her body, her mind, her marriage, her disposition, and in her education.
One such issue in India that still has widespread ambiguity, silence and secrecy 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.
What is Menstruation?
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 which occurs around the age of 45-50. 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; they do not resume until the initial stage of breastfeeding.
Duration of Periods 
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.
What is the reason behind Periods?
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 fertilization, the future fetus would rest here until childbirth. But if there is no such event, this uterus lining sheds off in the form of blood through the vagina.
What happens and how does it feel?
When a girl gets her period for the first time, she might feel some changes occurring in her body, like moodiness, 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 as the important information about menstruation has customarily been withheld from girls and women in India.
Health issues related to menstruation
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 serious health
problems.
Myths and Taboos about Menstruation in the Indian Society
A woman in New Delhi supports the Happy to Bleed campaign

Source: The Guardian. Photo by K Fayaz Ahmad

Despite centuries of work towards women’s social upliftment and empowerment by the likes of Phule and Ranade, in the present system, menstruation is still considered to be ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’. This taboo against a natural biological process has been carried as a cultural practice from the past. The origin of this myth dates back to the Vedic times and is often linked to Indra’s ( a Hindu deity) slaying of Vritras, a demon. It has been written in the Vedas that the guilt of killing a Brahmana (the uppermost varna in the Hindu caste system) 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 as 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 prevented from offering prayers and touching holy books. They 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, and anything they touch and possess is contaminated .
The many misconceptions about menstruation such as its association with evil spirits leads to shame and embarrassment about any issue surrounding female sexual health. In some parts of India, women bury the cloths 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 that it is alleged that a woman can use another woman’s menstrual blood to “impose her 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 majority of India. There is no scientific explanation and logic behind these beliefs, and yet a majority of Indian
population goes on to practice these amoral and discriminatory practices as the patriarchal and misogynistic society dictates them to.
Amidst the primitive beliefs and extremely inhuman practices that are an outcome of the traditional patriarchal Indian society, the only individual that suffers the most is the girl/woman. Her sexual health has been put behind a lakshman rekha (demarcation) 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 beliefs and practices take a serious toll on girls and women’s health. An environment of shame and guilt has been built over the centuries about menstruating women. And as a result, today’s adolescent girls and women feel insecure, ashamed and stigmatized about menstruating.  Most girls are not provided with the basic and necessary health product that is the Sanitary Napkin or Pad. Pads are the most hygienic means to provide comfort to a woman’s body while she menstruates. This results in girls using unhygienic ways to handle their menstrual blood flow like 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.
Even if they overcome societal and familial shame to try to procure sanitary napkins, they feel embarrassed to buy them from pharmacy stores run by men. Another reason for young girls and women not using sanitary napkins and pads is its high cost. High cost and taxes on hygiene products make them unattainable for poor girls and women. Requests must be made to the government to reduce the cost of menstrual pads and make them easily accessible.
In a television report on ‘Menstrual Hygiene, Women’s Day Special’ by NDTV, it was put forth that the percentage of girls and women using sanitary napkins in India is less than 20%. The report also mentioned that every year, 23 million girls drop out of school when they start menstruating- some 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% menstruating girls in India spoke to their mothers about menstruation. 70% of mothers with menstruating daughters considered menstruation as “dirty” and didn’t know how to manage menstruation in a hygienic manner. The research also said that schools are also not that helpful as there are many schools which don’t educate their students about menstruation and sexual health.
Inspiration can be taken from countries such as New Zealand and Scotland which are amongst the first countries to provide sanitary products free in all schools, universities and colleges. Such models will ensure that proper sanitary accessories are provided to every single girl child and women in the remotest parts of the country.
The lack of knowledge is costing young girls and women their futures. It is a topic about which  adults at home and school are not too keen to talk about. They feel uncomfortable talking about sexual and reproductive health. These same people feel that there is no need of making teenage girls aware about sex education and menstruation.
A key issue that is associated with menstruation is the disposal of the sanitary waste generated in the process. The old practices dictate that women burn the already old,
dirty and unhygienic cloth rag, used by women at the cost of endangering their lives, be burnt in utmost secrecy post its use. It is a huge 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 and females dispose of the used sanitary napkins by flushing in toilets or by throwing them normally 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 and giving the vital information to all girls, boys, women and men, 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 centuries old traditions that put the baseless customs and beliefs above the health, life
and well-being of girls and women. 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 too.
Modern technology should be used by the government and 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 orthodox customs 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 and all the great Indian reformers who dedicated their lives to uplift the poor, empower women and give equal strength to every individual who had been crushed by the vices of old customs, patriarchy and orthodoxy. They abolished the inhumane Sati Pratha and other misogynistic practices; and so now it is our chance to abolish the stigmatisation of menstruation. Let us all embrace their teachings, and together we must fight to defeat the enemy that resides in the archaic and obsolete customs of the patriarchal society.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
1. Levy, J., Romo-Avilés, N. “A good little tool to get to know yourself a bit
better”: a qualitative study on users’ experiences of app-supported menstrual
tracking in Europe. BMC Public Health 19, 1213 (2019).
https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7549-8
2. Menstrual Hygiene – The Present Scenario and Adverse Effects
http://www.vims.ac.in/blog/menstrual-hygiene/
3. 23 Million Women Drop Out Of School Every Year When They Start
Menstruating In India
https://swachhindia.ndtv.com/23-million-women-drop-out-of-school-every-yea
r-when-they-start-menstruating-in-india-17838/

About the Author: Samriddhi Sharma is a Class 9 student at Delhi Public School.

 

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