TACOMA, Washington — With a population of more than 1.35 billion people, India has the second-largest population in the world. It is the world’s fifth-largest economy and is also a quickly growing trillion-dollar economy. Despite its tremendous economic growth, India continues to struggle with gender equality. India has a highly skewed sex ratio. For every 1,000 boys born, there are only 918 girls born. This is in part due to female feticide, the practice of sex-selective abortion. Unfortunately, discrimination continues long after birth in India. One survey found that India is the fourth most dangerous place for women on earth. Some of the biggest issues faced by women in India include a high prevalence of acid attacks, domestic violence, rape, dowry traditions and human trafficking. In addition to these atrocities, the stigma of menstruation in India keeps women from equality.
The Stigma of Menstruation in India
One issue that often goes unmentioned in India is that of menstruation. A National Family Health Survey found that of women aged 15 to 24 in India, only 58% used hygienic ways to deal with their periods. This was the result of inaccessibility and lack of awareness of sanitary products. Menstruation is a subject in many parts of the world that holds a lot of stigmas.
In Hinduism, a commonly practiced religion in India, a woman is considered “dirty and impure” during menstruation. This leads to various restrictions that differ depending on the region and denomination of Hinduism. The restrictions can include not being allowed to cook or fetch water, refraining from being sexually active or being forced to live in menstrual huts, which can be unsanitary and dangerous.
These restrictions on girls and women affect their quality of life for up to 12 weeks throughout each year. Many women do not go to work or school as they are expected to isolate themselves from the rest of society. This impacts their economic and social independence. Around 23 million girls drop out of school completely when they begin menstruation in India.
With a lack of adequate washing facilities and hygiene products, especially in rural areas, more than 77% of “women in India use an old cloth,” and 88% will use newspaper, dried leaves and husk sand to aid absorption. Lack of menstrual hygiene can result in various infections and even infertility. Reproductive infections also increase susceptibility to cervical cancer. The World Health Organization attributes “27% of the world’s cervical cancer deaths” to Indian women, which is close to “twice the global average.”
Empowering Young Women in Rural India
The Dansk Kherwara Mission is a non-governmental organization in Kherwara, India that runs a group home for girls. The Borgen Project interviewed its vice president, Patricha Jeppe Ottsen, to learn more about the work of the mission and how it has recently begun to educate young women and girls about menstruation.
The home has been running for about 70 years and provides girls with clothing, food, medical care and education. The organization also provides financial support and guidance during higher education after the girls leave home. In recent years, the Dansk Kherwara Mission has adopted new approaches, providing a higher standard of women’s rights and opportunities.
The Dansk Kherwara Mission implemented one pilot project that incorporated theory and experience from African and Indian sub-continent studies on menstrual taboos. The project included specific education for the girls in hygiene and pain management, religious taboos, women’s bodies and biology, puberty and women’s rights. In addition, the girls were provided with various menstrual management products such as pads, cloth pads, tampons and menstrual cups.
“The idea was to give the girls informed choices,” Ottsen explained. “The project had a great impact on the girls’ self-image and confidence levels, and did affect their agency.” The older girls have also begun to talk more openly about their periods, bodies and puberty in general, as well as provide guidance to the younger girls. Unfortunately, the impact was confined to the organization’s home. The organization plans to address this issue in the near future by including female elders in a program that can help alleviate some of the public restrictions.
The impact of one organization can only go so far. Governments, non-governmental and multilateral organizations need to make sure that menstrual hygiene is a priority in order to improve women’s rights in India and everywhere else. Human Rights Watch suggested that those providing services to women need to include various resources for menstruation. This includes acceptable and affordable menstrual products, access to sanitary facilities and knowledge of options available. Changing the culture surrounding menstruation is also important for women’s empowerment.
Transforming the menstruation norms in India could also have long-lasting effects. If young women are able to continue school without stigma and restrictions due to their period, society as a whole will benefit. According to the World Bank, each year of secondary education may reduce the likelihood of child marriage by at least five percentage points. Girls that complete secondary education also tends to be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, earn higher incomes, marry later in life and have fewer children. As India advances technologically and economically, addressing the stigma of menstruation can contribute to its national development.
– Charlotte Severns