Indian Menstruation Taboos
As a Westerner, something you may notice when traveling around India are the social taboos that are not tolerated and/or discussed. One of these ‘hidden’ topics unfortunately includes female menstruation.
The lack of hygiene awareness and menstruation education in India is a massive problem for a number of reasons.
Approximately 87% of girls, particularly in rural areas, grow up with zero to little knowledge about menstruation before their first period.
The majority of both young and old women are still not aware or educated about menstruation and its purpose (even after experiencing their first, second, third, etc. periods).
This lack of knowledge and thus, the minimal discussion on menstruation, largely contributes to periods being a taboo topic. Consequently, these women are inhibited from recognising the need for proper education and hygienic products.
The lack of hygiene awareness, particularly in impoverished, uneducated communities, has attributed to some women using newspapers, mud, leaves, and other natural substances to line their clothing. While it is more common for women to reuse pieces of cloth, these actions are still highly detrimental to a woman’s body. The lack of education regarding the need for proper sanitary products and the need for proper underwear poses a huge risk to a woman’s present health, future fertility, and overall well-being.
It needs to be acknowledged that the underlying reason for this lack of education is due to the social attitude regarding menstruation. It is not discussed because it is viewed as ‘dirty,’ and in certain areas of India, women menstruating are restricted from participating in their daily activities.
The problem with this attitude is, in conjunction with the lack of education, girls in their early years of menstruation feel isolated, confused, and scared.
This situation needs to change. More attention needs to be raised towards this issue to secure the well-being and future of women all over India.
The purpose of this article is to create visibility about this issue to fight the stigma against menstruation. Calling attention to this issue will inform people, communities, international organisations, and anyone else that can raise awareness and encourage others to help women in this situation.
This call for visibility comes after my voluntary work with PraveenLata Sansthan, an Indian non-government organisation.
The non-profit entity aims to transform the behavioral, social and economic situations of disadvantaged girls by undertaking community-based initiatives. This disadvantage includes but is not limited to physical, verbal and mental abuse, sexual harassment and general hardship. Therefore, the work PraveenLata Sansthan undertakes empowers these young women and accelerates a positive step forward in their lives.
Founded by Bharti Singh Chauhan in 2013, Bharti Chauhan has worked hard to spread awareness on menstrual and reproductive education, exhibited through her initiative “Spotless Dame.” The program celebrates the “red droplets” and aims to create a positive attitude around menstruation and the natural processes of a woman’s body.
PraveenLata Sansthan has already created an impact, conducting an array of workshops in schools around India of which discuss menstruation, child abuse, and safety. More notably, the NGO has successfully trained 2500 girls in a menstruation hygiene management program and supported 1,100 girls with free sanitary pads of which they would otherwise not be able to have access to.
This year the NGO aims to support 11,000 girls living in rural areas, by providing them with proper education on menstruation and sanitary support for one year.
Further interest in PraveenLata Sansthan’s work can be accessed here: http://pls-ngo.org
After learning about the Spotless Dame initiative and seeing the goals produced through Bharti Chauhan’s eyes, I decided that I wanted to not only immerse myself deeper into the ‘menstruation conversation’ but also raise greater awareness and understanding in both a local and international perspective. Therefore, part of my work with PraveenLata Sansthan was interviewing a couple of the girls from the NGO and learning about their menstruation experience(s).
I interviewed four girls of whom will remain anonymous for privacy reasons. These girls were aged:
- 13 years - first period this month (February 2018)
- 14 years - partnered discussion, both girls on their period for less than a year
- 16 years -has had her period for 2 years
The questions consisted of, but were not limited to:
- Are you embarrassed about your period?
- How do you feel when you have your period?
- Do you think having your period is good?
- What do you use when you have your period?
- Do you have access to sanitary pads and underwear?
- Did anyone educate you on menstruation before your first period?
- Are you not allowed to do certain activities when you have your period?
- Do you understand what is happening when you have your period?
- Do you talk about your period with your family or friends? Your father or any other males?
Felt bad about herself during first period
Embarrassed/scared to discuss periods
Scared during her first period
Felt "too young" to be having a period
Asked themselves "why" they were getting their period
After workshops with the NGO, sees menstruation as "normal" and not bad
Family did not discuss menstruation before her first period
Both families did not discuss menstruation before period began
Was not informed about menstruation before her first period
Her family did/does not have knowledge about menstruation or sanitary products
Both do not discuss menstruation with their family as they don't understand "why" they would
Growing up in rural India there was a big stigma around girls on their periods
Has not been educated about menstruation at school
With the exception of an externally-run programme, both receive no education regarding menstruation in school
Receives no education about menstruation at school
Would never discuss her period with a man, not even her father
Would never discuss menstruation with boys
Would never speak to a man about her period
Scared to tell her sister and other family members once she had her period
Only discuss their period with female friends
Only discusses their period with female family members and friends
Perception of a periods function: to "cleanse" stomach waste
Both do not understand the purpose of menstruation
Perception of a period's function: to rid the "bad blood" and purify her insides
Wears underwear everyday and uses sanitary pads provided by NGO
Both are only able to use sanitary pads through the help of the NGO
Always wears underwear and sanitary pads provided by NGO
When conducting these interviews it was clear that embarrassment and feelings of anxiety largely characterised and to a degree still surround their menstruation experience. These feelings are largely founded on the cultural and social attitudes regarding menstruation.
Moreover, listening to the 16-year-old discuss her treatment by society and her own family when living in rural India, was a big shock for me. The stigma around girls menstruating is hugely psychologically debilitating as they are avoided and labelled as "untouchables." Her personal treatment included:
- Not being allowed to touch anything at home
- Not being allowed to sit in the same room with any males (even her brother or father)
- Her food and water was separated from the rest of her family – shunned to isolation
- She could only sleep on floor tiles rather than in her own bed
I was also very shocked to hear the girls explain how the purpose of menstruation was to expel the “bad blood” out of their bodies and cleanse themselves.
However, after discussing my worries with Bharti Chauhan she explained to me that in order to make the girls feel more comfortable and not scare them, she explains menstruation and the female body over time. In this way, once they are older, they are more educated and can understand menstruation and its meaning in a more comprehensible manner.
Working with these young girls and watching their relationship with Bharti Chauhan’s, it is clear that the work of PraveenLata Sansthan has generated a substantial amount of awareness and education among these girls.
Although on a small scale, by properly educating these girls on menstruation and sanitation it already changes their mindset about themselves, gives them a greater foundation of knowledge regarding their own body, and also provides greater protection and education for their future children.
There is however still a substantial amount of work needed to reach women all over the country and alter the stigma around periods. For this reason, I would ask you to reflect on what little you could do to make a change to these girls.
Whether it is through contact with PraveenLata Sansthan, other organisations, the Indian government, etc. any action no matter how small can help. Through these actions, you can help secure the health and security of women in India and generate a positive change in the social and cultural understandings of female menstruation.
Interested in donating? You can find more information on how to help create a change at http://pls-ngo.org/donate/