Menstrual hygiene: Still shy to talk red in India

Heavy-bleeding-700x350Red signifies many connotations in the diverse Indian cultures and religions. Power, purity, love, anger — red has many shades of interpretation. Another significant meaning of red which often shies away from being part of mainstream discussion in India is menstrual hygiene. With the word menstruation are accompanied never-ending myths and taboos like inequality, impurity, superstition that are still deep-rooted in our society. The menstruation myth is not restricted to rural areas only; modern families in urban areas and metro cities are no exception.

Menstruation is a natural phenomenon experienced by women’s bodies, without which reproduction is impossible. Education on menstrual hygiene is highly important for girls to understand the transitional change in their bodies. But why do people get so uncomfortable by this subject about a natural process of life?

What is absurd about taboos around menstruation in India is that in some cultures, onset of menarche is traditionally celebrated with much openness to mark the beginning of puberty. For instance, Assam celebrates the onset of periods in girls with a marriage ceremony called Tuloni Biya; in Karnataka, it is celebrated as Aashirvada; Tamil Nadu calls it Saddangu and so on. In Assam, the menstruating girl is married to a banana tree, assumed to be her groom. The adolescent girl is decked up like a bride and vermillion is put on her; it’s a seven-day affair followed by a marriage reception, music and gifts for the little bride.

However, the same openness is absent when it comes to talking to girls on basic menstrual hygiene methods, correct ways to use sanitary napkins, treating them as normal human beings during menstruation without following taboos and superstitious beliefs. Everybody shies away from these things, including the mothers.

In most parts of the country girls on periods are barred from entering kitchens, temples, washing her hair, taking medicines, not to forget the pickle curse where touching pickle is believed to be ominous; in some cases girls are only allowed to sleep on floors for at least a week, a custom still prevalent in many states of north, south and north-east India. These antiquated customs are a result of sheer ignorance in terms of education and awareness on the concept of menstruation across all sections of society in India.

Time to talk red

Goonj Founder Anshu Gupta, whose Not Just a Piece of Cloth (NJPC) project caters to women of rural areas and urban slums of 20 states through distribution of handcrafted, reusable cotton sanitary napkins and spearheading education on menstrual hygiene in schools, calls for a framework to fetch out a long-term solution on menstruation.
“The topic of menstruation cannot be treated as a fashionable subject which all of a sudden has become one. We need to look for long-term solutions to this. People are setting up sanitary pad vending machines, incinerators, even selling pads at a subsidised rate of 5 per packet against the MRP (maximum retail price) of 30 per packet.

Distribution of sanitary napkins (not even 100% cotton) is momentary. The real question is when will we have a long term solution for menstruation — the need for education and awareness on menstrual hygiene?” Anshu told Tehelka.

Focusing more on the need of educating girls and women on menstrual hygiene, he said, “We need to work more on the awareness part like what is the issue related to menstruation? How do we get into more hygienic practices? We at Goonj stress more on education, interaction and then on our product MY Pad. Goonj also believes in the theory of triple As- Awareness, Accessibility and Affordability, without meeting these three points, the entire cycle is incomplete. Not to miss out on the fact that affordability is still a big issue in a poor country like India.”

Jago Gaon founder Somesh Choudhury is fighting for the menstrual hygiene rights of women in over 100 villages of Begusarai and Samastipur districts of Bihar. Many villages of Bihar do not sell sanitary napkins in shops due to stigma surrounding periods, Somesh told Tehelka.

“We have brought out an awareness book named Mahamari Meri Kahani so that the first level of the task, i.e, educating girls and women on menstrual hygiene, is done. Jago Gaon reaches out to rural schools where girls from fifth standard are taught on pre-menarche and menstrual hygiene practices. We also work with women of village Gram Sabhas and Anganwadi workers of Begusarai and Samastipur districts in Bihar, Bateshwar (Agra district in Uttar Pradesh), Dhandbad in Jharkhand and parts of Delhi, on the menstrual hygiene sensitization drive to train and educate them. It is not necessary that females should wear sanitary napkins only; hygienic cotton cloth can be worn too during periods. ”

Choudhury and Gupta are men on a health mission for women in a society where the natural phenomenon of menstruation is considered as impure and shameful. When asked about facing any resistance from people, Somesh said, “Once, when we were motivating women of Bah Bateshwar village in Agra for pads distribution work in nearby villages, senior male members from their families started to warn them saying Is kaun pagal ke chakkar mein pad gaye ho (Don’t work with this mad person).”

Talking about Punjab, Jeevan Jyot, better known as ‘Pad Woman’, pinpoints an important matter — majority of village women cannot afford undergarments or have access to it them, forget about any menstrual protections for them. She said that 70 per cent of females in rural areas of Punjab are still far from using or having access to sanitary napkins, as per a survey by S.H.E Society of which she is the founder.

“We started a campaign called ’S.H.E. Breaks the Bloody Taboo’ , where we began by imparting education by talking about taboos and myths on menstruation in rural schools of Punjab. We found out that 70 per cent of females in rural Punjab were not using sanitary napkins or had access to pads. I decided to plan a cheaper solution for these ladies. That is when this campaign turned into a project,” she said.

“We are engrossed in reusable pads distribution that can be worn without an undergarment and also, provide two-hour menstrual health programme educating females on hygienic menstrual practices in schools, slums and rural areas. We hold simultaneous sessions with the girls first and then with the mothers,” Jeevan told Tehelka.
Called ECOShe Saafkin pads, a pack of two reusable pads costs Rs 200. Only girls from the very poor families get the pads free of cost. What is special about these pads? Jeevan explained that they are made out of a fabric which is permanent anti-bacterial and disinfected, powered by living guard technology. The wash-and-reuse ECOShe Saafkin pads can last for a year sans discomfort.

Talking about unhygienic menstrual practices in Punjab, Jeevan said, “We have adopted a slum in Jalandhar where we have witnessed how these slum ladies are involved in most unhygienic menstrual practices like using rice husk and sand as menstrual protection.”

To this, Somesh added, “Our fight is not limited to sanitary napkins and awareness. Menstruation is a normal body phenomenon without which the existence of mankind is a question. To understand this, government should make menstrual hygiene a part of school education where both male and female students should be taught to break barrier, taboos and myth. And awareness and education on menstrual hygiene is a continuous process. ”