Ruhi, now 17, who lives in a village of Uttar Pradesh, recalls her experience: “We are forced to be isolated in a nearby hut and are also told not to come into direct sunlight or touch utensils for the next two weeks of our cycle. There is a serious rule to not discuss it with men. As a result of the existing norms and no facilities at school, I don’t go to school anymore. Maybe, Studying was never an option for us.”
Every month, more than 355 million people in India experience menstruation. Despite this, Menstruation remains a topic of disgrace even today. On one hand, people look up to women’s fertility with “Pride” while at the same time menstruation which is itself responsible for a woman’s fertility is considered “Impure” and thus widely stigmatised. This common hypocrisy is leading many girls to drop out of their schools at an early age with the burden of following the non-justified practices of menstruation amongst girls. The question remains, why is a period stain considered a source of embarrassment? Why is something so natural being regarded with disdain?
Most aspects of social and cultural life become prohibited to women and girls because of the existing menstruation taboos. My childhood curiosity always led me to wonder why the shopkeeper sold pads in those ‘black bags’ rather than regular ones. I guess growing up makes it pretty evident. From being told to not take a bath or not enter holy places in one’s cycle, women spend much of their time figuring out time and preplanning their events as a result of these social norms. I am certain that most of you remember the only menstruation-awareness workshop held in your school. In the dark shadow of secrecy, all of the girls were sent to a separate room, with doors and windows closed, awareness being made in the form of whispering, and boys were barred from entering. Yes. That’s exactly how the workshop at my school aimed at “normalising” menstruation ended up normalising it. Also, do you remember that one “biology class’’ that was supposedly intended to raise awareness but ended up being just like any other typical Indian biology class, with boys laughing and making jokes and teachers more interested in skipping those lectures? All of these little things unknowingly contribute significantly to perpetuating the stigma around the youth. I believe the stigma and the secrecy surrounding this topic are thus rooted in every household.
More than 80% of girls are unaware of menstruation until they have their first period. Parents fail to educate their children about menstruation; as a result of which many girls are unaware of the processes involved in their menstrual cycle and what they should be doing to stay healthy during their periods. Furthermore, Awareness among the country’s male population remains a far-fetched dream. The taboos associated with discussing menstruation at home and in schools are thus to be blamed for this lack of awareness . Hence, I believe that Schools must encourage open conversations about menstruation and how to remain healthy throughout the cycle.
In rural areas, the situation is even worse. When young girls begin menstruating, they are forced to spend their days at specially made huts named ‘Gaokars’, where girls are banished during their cycles. Girls in villages are thus left with no choice but to spend their time isolated while abandoning their studies in these special huts with no kitchens and filthy bathrooms with no sanitation. Only 3% of women in rural India are estimated to use sanitary napkins. Women often rely on husk sand, old pieces of cloth, or soil while on their periods which are really unhygienic causing diseases. Women are also prohibited from participating in daily household chores, taking a bath, and entering holy places because according to a common man, menstruation stands equal to being “impure and dirty”. The idea that if a menstruating woman touches something in her monthly cycles, the thing will be ruined is common amongst the citizens. For instance, it is even believed that if you touch a cow while on your period, then the cow becomes infertile! Not only this ,people in the country still rely upon menstruation as a cause of evil spirits.
The majority of these prohibitions are not justified rationally, right? However, a large part of the society has yet to be untangled from this ‘everlasting loop’ of the stigma and taboo surrounding the topic. It may not be possible to break the taboo on one’s own, but one could contribute significantly by normalising things in one’s household.