NEW DELHI, India — While menstruation is a natural reproductive process, sociocultural taboos have made it difficult for many women in India to live comfortably. These social and cultural influences can negatively impact the health and financial status of women. To combat this, individuals and organizations have been working to change views on menstruation in India.
Taboos on Menstruation in India
Taboos and myths regarding menstruation, often derived from the Hindu religion, impact women in all aspects of their lives. The overt disgust shown toward menstruation can affect a girl’s emotional and physical health, as many girls lack a basic understanding of reproductive health.
In 2012, a study conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that 66 percent of schoolgirls in India have no prior knowledge of menstruation when they begin bleeding.
This lack of information is largely due to the deeply rooted taboos in Indian culture. Nearly 75 percent of women in India would prefer using plastic bags or newspapers as a substitute because social pressures make them tentative to purchase sanitary products. Menstruation in India is a closed-off topic that results in many young girls feeling ashamed of their bodies. Aakanksha Bhatia, a Sexual Health and Hygiene expert, explains, “In a particular culture, taboos get formed when certain beliefs stay the same over a particular period of time. These beliefs get solidified and become so embedded in our collective psyche that we refuse to let go of them even when the circumstances in which they originated change.”
Indian women on their periods are viewed as “untouchable” and, as a result, are banned from cooking, touching water, bathing and entering places of worship. Bangalore-based MHM educator, Urmila Chanam, says, “When a girl in India gets her first period, everyone tells her that she is impure.” In the Hindu religion, polluting the earth is viewed as a sin, and therefore bleeding from menstruation is regarded as a wrongful act as it is seen to pollute the earth.
The Effects of Menstrual Taboos
The religious views and taboos on menstruation in India are prevalent among certain ethnic groups, including the Gond and Madiya. In such indigenous groups, women and girls who are menstruating are banished from their households and forced to stay in a hut outside their village, known as a gaokor. The inhabitants of the gaokors are prohibited from cooking, so they must rely on family members for food and water.
They are left with a sheet to use as a mattress and nothing else. Poor upkeep and the distant location of the gaokors put many young women at risk. There have been cases of women dying in gaokors due to snake bites. Cultural beliefs also lead many women to believe that if someone were to find their used sanitary napkins, black magic (Jadu tona) could be performed against them. Therefore, many women avoid using sanitary products because they are inconvenient to dispose of.
Taboos also make sanitary products difficult to come by. Only 12 percent of Indian women have access to sanitary products, forcing many women to resort to unsafe methods to deal with menstruation, including unsanitary cloths, ashes, sand, newspapers or dried leaves. However, these are extremely dangerous practices as reproductive tract infections are 70 percent more prevalent in women who do not use sanitary napkins.
The cultural views of menstruation take a toll on women’s livelihoods and impact their prospects for a successful career. The prominence of maltreatment towards menstruating women and girls is often greater in poorer areas, where many adolescent girls miss school days while menstruating. In 2011, AC Nielsen discovered that the average Indian girl between 12 and 18 years old misses 50 days of school each year due to the lack of public facilities. Even more serious is the fact that about 23 percent of school-aged girls in India end up dropping out of school altogether once they begin menstruation. Both economic disparity and gender inequality are worsened by taboos on menstruation.
Changing Perceptions of Menstruation
Both men and women are working to fight taboos on menstruation in India. Arunachalam Muruganantham, also known as the Menstrual Man, has democratized access to sanitary products for Indian women. Inspired by his wife’s difficulty in affording sanitary napkins, Muruganantham built a low-cost piece of equipment that could manufacture pads. Not only did this allow women to purchase cheaper sanitary products for themselves, but many women purchased these machines and started selling sanitary products as a form of income. While most internationally manufactured sanitary napkins cost $1.50 in Indian stores, Muruganantham’s sanitary napkins only cost $0.25. There are currently about 1,300 machines throughout India.
The Great WASH Yatra, also known as Nirmal Bharat Yatra (NBY), is a $150,000 campaign, launched in 2011, that is addressing issues surrounding menstruation. Through support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program works to educate adolescent girls in India on the natural process of menstruation. NBY organized workshops in Bettiah in which young girls made beaded bracelets, each bead compromising certain days of her menstrual cycle. Women and girls are taught that menstruation is a biological process to expel the idea of shame that often comes with it. Nearly 12,000 women have been positively affected by this program.
Social stigmas and religious beliefs with menstruation in India have harmed both women’s wellbeing and economic opportunities; however, new programs are changing this. Forward-minded people are taking a stance and working to protect women.
– Haarika Gurivireddygari