Mapping Myths and Menstrual Well being in India – The Wire Science


Photograph: Nataliya Vaitkevich/Pexels


  • The censorship of menstrual blood, reviews of individuals being “grossed out” by it and being ashamed to speak a couple of organic occasion is rooted in discriminatory discourse.
  • Interval poverty describes the wrestle many ladies and ladies face vis-à-vis affording menstrual merchandise and care. The pandemic created a silent epidemic of interval poverty.
  • Myths, stigma and taboo are handed on from one technology to the subsequent, which ladies – now in class and reacting to a number of data techniques – at the moment are dispelling.
  • Adolescent ladies are extra enthusiastic adopters of sustainability, which ties effectively with their use of the web and their assist for eco-feminist beliefs.

Elissa Stein, coauthor of Stream: The Cultural Story of Menstruation (2009), advised The New York Instances in 2010:

“Fem-care promoting is so sterilised and so faraway from what a interval is. You by no means see a toilet, you by no means see a girl utilizing a product. They by no means present somebody having cramps or her face breaking out or tearful—it’s all the time joyful, playful, sporty girls.”

Most of us bear in mind the collective discomfort in Indian households when a interval commercial would play out on TV screens. In a patriarchal omission, the pink interval blood would get replaced by a medical blue. From the hush-hush remedy to the joyful faces of girls in up to date interval adverts, we have now come a great distance. Final 12 months, Whisper India launched a TV business showcasing interval pink, turning the wheel on the test-tube portrayal of blue.

The censorship of menstrual blood, reviews of women and men being “grossed out” by it and being ashamed to speak a couple of organic occasion affecting a major part of the inhabitants is rooted in discriminatory discourse.

Based on a 2016 research on menstrual hygiene administration (MHM) amongst adolescent ladies in India, solely 12% of menstruating girls and ladies had entry to sanitary napkins out of 355 million. The variety of menstruating girls in India who use disposable sanitary napkins stood at 121 million.

Interval poverty, in accordance with the UN Inhabitants Fund, describes the wrestle many low-income girls and ladies face whereas attempting to afford menstrual merchandise and care.

The pandemic created a silent epidemic of interval poverty.

Preeti Poddar, baby safety officer at Delhi-based non-profit Protsahan India Basis, says, “Neglect about pads – a number of adolescent ladies whom we cater to within the city slum colonies in West Delhi and Dwarka don’t even have entry to underwear. They might typically come solely carrying a salwar or skirt.” Their moms work as home assist whereas their fathers are engaged in rag-picking actions. A number of the ladies are homeless and beg or used to beg on the streets.

Kalindi*, an 18-year-old lady ‘champion’ (a label for a peer educator) at Protsahan, says that when colleges stopped the provision of sanitary napkins, a number of ladies from the native communities needed to resort to utilizing dry leaves, rags and soiled or discarded used garments.

Deblina Chatterjee, a public well being coach in Kolkata at present working with the non-profit organisation Anahat for Change Basis, has beforehand skilled accredited social well being activist (ASHA) employees in rural Bengal. Anahat works to speed up data and consciousness of MHM primarily in West Bengal Board of Senior Secondary and Increased Secondary and girls-only colleges in Kolkata’s city and suburban areas and another districts.

Chatterjee has expertise in conducting MHM coaching amongst communities for college college students and fogeys. At a few of these periods, a number of grownup menstruators didn’t establish the uterus. When Chatterjee requested them if they’ve ever seen an image of the feminine reproductive organ at a well being clinic/ultrasound facility, the reply was within the adverse. And when she requested them in the event that they knew the outlet of menstrual blood, the silence continued. Most of those girls have been within the superior years of their reproductive cycles.

When Chatterjee launched the sustainable fabric pad to her class, the very first thing that got here to adolescent minds was: is it washable?

The lack of awareness about menstruation has allowed a cycle of misinformation to erupt round it. From not getting into or touching a web site of prayer or rituals to not touching meals and cooking utensils and never consuming bitter meals, the lists of don’ts signify totally different cultural norms throughout communities however they’re all rooted within the mysteries and the myths surrounding menstruation.

Colleges, sanitation and the grammar of durations

“After we began working with adolescent ladies in colleges and communities, we figured that [there was a long way to go to] break myths, stigma and taboo,” says Purvi Tanwani, co-founder of Anahat for Change. “Firstly, we wished them to speak overtly with us as a result of the populations we have been catering to had completely no data about menstruation. The primary query we requested them was: Do you know about menstruation earlier than you began your durations or did your mother and father/moms discuss to you about it?.”

The curriculum at Bengali-medium colleges in West Bengali doesn’t cowl the human reproductive system and elementary sexuality schooling till class 11, which guidelines out a big part of scholars that don’t go for the science stream on the greater secondary degree.

“It doesn’t matter what the medium, I don’t suppose any college curriculum covers the human anatomy and reproductive system in as a lot element as it’s required,” Sanjina Gupta, founding father of Kolkata-based non-profit Rangeen Khidki, says. “Some curricula require it to be taught in school 9, some in school 11, however the reality is that more often than not lecturers skip the subject or present very superficial info as a result of they themselves are ashamed to speak about it. And the actual fact is that by class 9 or 1, most female-bodied people have already began menstruating.”

Myths, stigma and taboo are handed on from one technology to the subsequent, which ladies – now in class and reacting to a number of data techniques – at the moment are dispelling. “They’re questioning the logic behind the parable that interval blood is impure or that the menstruator is impure throughout that point. So we first began by making a secure setting for them, so they may begin speaking about their menstrual practices. Then we begin addressing the disgrace and stigma,” Tanwani says.

Schooling is a good equaliser vis-à-vis the rights and illustration of menstruators within the sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR) milieu, however the reality stays that menstruators usually miss going to colleges within the first two or three days of the menstrual cycle.

A 2014 report by the NGO Dasra titled, entitled ‘Spot On!,’ discovered that almost 23 million ladies drop out of faculty yearly on account of lack of correct menstrual hygiene administration amenities. The report additionally mentioned that 70% of moms with menstruating daughters thought of menstruation to be “soiled” and 71% of adolescent ladies remained unaware of menstruation till menarche1.

“Colleges don’t have the right infrastructure or assist – from a grimy washroom to a washroom with out locks, and no place to eliminate sanitary napkins,” in accordance with Tawani. “We have now additionally been to girls-only colleges not essentially in distant and rural Bengal, however colleges as shut by because the Ganga financial institution in South 24 Parganas” – adjoining Kolkata – have “no bogs. The ladies needed to go to the river financial institution to clean and eliminate pads. Open defecation amongst women and men is a reasonably regular observe there.”

Jaswant Kaur, vice-president of Pilani Atmanirbhar Useful resource Centre, an initiative of the BITSAA Belief, mentioned that surveys in Better Noida, close to Delhi, revealed that an awesome majority of adolescent ladies throughout marginalised communities lack entry to MHM data and fundamental consciousness of menstruation as a pure organic course of. Their moms typically revealed their views on menstruation as a “drawback”, a “illness” or as one thing “unnatural and impure”.

(The UN Sustainable Growth Targets goal 6.2 requires ‘particular consideration to the wants of girls and ladies’, so WASH programmes have been monitoring menstrual health-related wants.)

The principals of a number of the “huge authorities colleges” shared with Tanwani that they’d made allowances for cleansing washrooms. Nevertheless, they’re so tightly budgeted round each time merchandise that the bathroom amenities stay virtually unusable. In truth, in a number of such colleges, a sanitation employee comes as soon as each week or twice a month to choose up the waste, which additionally means the dustbins ceaselessly overflow.

“Quite the opposite, and mockingly, lecturers’ washrooms have been discovered to be very clear,” Tanwani says. Anahat went on to construct a bathroom for a college in Diamond Harbour.

Even colleges that used pad-vending machines as a part of some company social accountability programmes couldn’t remedy the issue of provide as a result of the machines weren’t refilled after the primary couple instances. The machine have been additionally normally transferred to the lecturers’ frequent room, additional rendering college students hesitant to achieve out for pads. Lecturers justified it by saying “the women would find yourself breaking it,” as Tanwani of Anahat says. Generally, most ladies didn’t even know {that a} merchandising machine existed on the college premises – or what a merchandising machine was for that matter.

Based on Gupta, in actuality, to state that menstruators in rural areas know lower than their city counterparts could be faulty. It’s generally true however not as a rule, she provides. Solely final week, she recalled, throughout a go to to a Kolkata college, adolescent menstruators advised her they thought they’d most cancers, had injured themselves severely or have been dying after they first began menstruating.

Kaur says that usually, within the title of bogs, colleges have open seats and unclean areas with out locks, making privateness and security a giant barrier, and which then results in absenteeism.

The politics of menstrual merchandise

Whereas learning the gaps within the sustainable menstrual hygiene merchandise market, Tanwani discovered that the maxim is was “jo dikhta nahi, woh bikta nahi” (Hindi for ‘it doesn’t promote if it’s not seen’). The area was stricken by issues of low visibility and ads – whereas even the native paanwala had began promoting business sanitary pads. The sustainable merchandise have been additionally dearer and out there solely on a restricted platform, principally on-line and on demand, and generally inside an NGO’s web site, making them fairly area of interest.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 accelerated the demand for reusable pads. When the Indian authorities introduced the primary nationwide lockdown, solely “important companies” have been allowed to proceed – and sanitary napkins weren’t labeled as ‘important’. Many ladies’s teams, docs and non-governmental organisations got here ahead saying that COVID-19 wasn’t going to cease menstrual cycles.

There are three classes of adopters – or those that change from utilizing mass-market use-and-throw pads to sustainable fabric pads. These are those that undertake sustainable merchandise over environmental considerations, these switching for financial causes, and people switching to keep away from itching, irritation or vaginal rashes on account of use-and-throw napkins.

“A pack of standard sanitary napkins comes roughly at Rs 30-40, and a menstruator would require two such packs throughout a single menstrual cycle,” Chatterjee says. “If there are two or three menstruators in a household, you are able to do the maths your self. For a number of group members and socio-economic teams, this can be a big burden, owing to which they readily undertake a less expensive various, which can also be sustainable and has an extended shelf life.”

Anahat manufactures reusable and leak-proof ‘Unnati’ fabric pads, which it claims are 100% cotton and might be washed and reused for as much as three years. This initiative additionally helps the younger girls who make them earn a dwelling. An ‘Unnati’ pack comes at Rs 360 (retail worth) and lasts for 3 years.

Charu*, a 19-year-old lady ‘champion’ at Protsahan, had been advised to not contact objects of prayer, eat pickle or bathe throughout her menstrual cycle by her mom. The story is analogous for her associates, who had all been requested to not go to highschool and to cover their ache and menstrual hygiene merchandise. At present, through the NGO’s menstrual well being consciousness programme, Charu is aware of about points as numerous as vaginal rashes, medicines associated to menstruation, cervical most cancers, sustainable hygiene merchandise and the consolation of sentimental pillows.

In truth, in accordance with Tanwani, adolescent ladies are a number of the most enthusiastic adopters of sustainability, tying effectively with their consumption of content material on the web and their assist for eco-feminist beliefs.

“The actual fact that you must wash and dry a reusable fabric pad within the open itself is a stigma-shattering observe,” says Namrata Karamchandani, co-founder of Anahat for Change.

A menstrual cup – a funnel-shaped container that’s tucked contained in the vagina to gather menstrual fluid – permits as much as 10 hours of steady use, versus an everyday sanitary serviette or fabric pad, which is really helpful to be modified each six hours. This sounds particularly good for menstruators on the go.

A girl holds up a menstrual cup. Photograph: Oana Cristina/Unsplash

Chatterjee, nonetheless, says that the menstrual cup evokes sturdy sentiments of concern and discomfort amongst adolescent ladies. A menstrual cup additionally requires a non-public washroom or a privacy-friendly washroom match with a Western commode or no less than a instrument with which to insert the cup, later dispose the menstrual fluid, and a sterilisation facility. “Most Indian moms wouldn’t permit the family gasoline oven for use to boil water for sterilising a menstrual cup,” says Chatterjee.

However the politics of menstrual cups runs deeper and might be traced to a scarcity of entry to WASH. A UNICEF-WHO Joint Monitoring Programme report on ingesting water and sanitation says that billions of individuals will lack entry to soundly managed family ingesting water, sanitation and hygiene companies by 2030 except the speed of progress in the direction of assembly the sustainable growth targets quadruples.

The choice-making company and buying energy within the case of an adolescent menstruator principally lies with the mom or a dad or mum extra broadly. Whereas members of marginalised socio-economic teams are sometimes early adopters of sustainable menstrual hygiene merchandise, their counterparts in city slums cite issues of frequent bogs, Chatterjee says. When she factors out that they may use emergency bathroom provisions as an alternative of dumping the common sanitary napkins within the close by pond, which she describes as giving off a stench, they veer away from the dialog.

In a number of households in Murshidabad, 230 km north of Kolkata, the place Chatterjee went on subject visits, there are not any lights in bogs.

Alternatively, there’s a nurse working in a Kolkata hospital who, in accordance with Chatterjee, wished to modify to sustainable fabric pads however wasn’t ‘allowed’ by her mom.

These conversations should not straightforward to have. Ought to menstruators be shamed for inhabiting unfriendly areas outlined by controlling masculinities and thereby being unable to make use of a sustainable product, the place their solely choice might maybe be a commercially out there pad? As Chatterjee says, adopting sustainable menstrual hygiene merchandise must be a matter of selection and never coercion.

“A product-centric view of menstruation is limiting in its scope because it doesn’t essentially assist destigmatise menstruation. The narrative of sustainability/sustainable merchandise will stay superficial if it doesn’t tackle that,” says Gupta of Rangeen Khidki.

She had written to a number of state our bodies and stakeholders of the West Bengal authorities when the COVID-19 lockdown and cyclone Amphan disrupted the provision of sanitary napkins.

“Films like Padman, with their group saviour syndrome, insist on utilizing merchandise, telling us that utilizing fabric in essence is unhealthy observe. However such a view discredits an indigenous observe, which has been there by generations of grandmothers and moms,” she says. “Clearly, one has to grasp the distinction between utilizing discarded, used and soiled items of garments versus clear fabric.”

The tradition of utilizing garments, typically discarded and previous, typically paves the way in which for a transition to sustainable fabric pads intrinsically natural. And in that sense, the observe of sustainability has already been woven within the tradition of utilizing kapda/kapor, inside the home material of sexual and reproductive rubric. Nevertheless, to equate this homegrown tradition with a choice-based sustainability observe could be to gloss over determinants of socio-economic circumstances that maybe produced, formed and normalised a scarcity of entry.

A purely product-centric and technocratic method to menstruation could be limiting because it glosses over such intergenerational components and depoliticises the marginalisation of menstruators when it comes to denial of sexual and reproductive well being rights (SRHR). “India needed to scrap its 12% tax on all sanitary merchandise solely after months of campaigning. However simply tax-free sanitary provides should not sufficient. Entry to wash bogs for ladies with clear water provide in colleges and public areas is as vital,” says Sonal Kapoor, founder and board member, Protsahan India Basis.

By putting the onus of sustainability on already marginalised girls/menstruators are we overburdening them with an added ethical/moral accountability? Caste and different identities which have traditionally formed and perpetuated the marginalisation is embedded within the SRHR discourse, uncared for in public healthcare.

Is their financial and social vulnerability or lack of entry to schooling and medical techniques making them being passively co-opted by the sustainability motion?

Tanwani says, “Even two-three years again, sustainable menstrual merchandise was once out there solely to privileged sections of the inhabitants owing to unequal data and entry techniques. I believe the rising distribution of such merchandise amongst hitherto underserved populations through on-line mediums is barely democratising the provision chain or the bigger discourse.”

“Equally important is knowing that putting the burden of sustainability on the poorest of poor isn’t truthful,” provides Kapoor. “The sustainability burden is to be first shared by these within the hierarchy who’ve a privilege of selection and assets. Fairness is the actual secret ingredient to getting something carried out proper at scale.”

Ache and energy dynamics

Going again to Elissa Stein’s statement on joyful girls in interval adverts, the observe of omitting or disguising interval ache additionally signifies a vacuum in well-liked tradition.

In a number of casual conversations with friends, the author has come throughout tales of girls who needed to face stigma owing to their reluctance to cover the black bag, or overtly speak about menstrual cramps in so-called progressive households.

In truth, ache as a operate of the feminine physique, has been handled with a singular silence. Usually invalidated, ladies are culturised into shunning or normalising ache. Gupta says, “Even the dialog round painkillers is seen in a foul mild. I’ve heard moms cautioning younger ladies to not devour any tablet as it’d find yourself making them infertile. Circumstances similar to endometriosis and vaginal discharge earlier than and after interval are sometimes shrouded in ignorance and unacceptance, and in addition concern.”

The location of menstruation can also be not a cisgendered, female-only area. The degendering menstruation framework urges to acknowledge the fact that each one girls menstruate, and that not all those that menstruate are girls.

Dr Aqsa Shaikh, founder, Human Solidarity Basis, says, “The menstruation discourse in India is but to incorporate and put money into the non-binary and trans individuals lens, which leaves a major inhabitants of menstruators lower off from entry to secure menstrual hygiene merchandise, data, consciousness and train their rights to secure menstrual healthcare. The apathy is seen in how there’s a extreme lack of gender-neutral washrooms.”

Vandita Morarka, founder and CEO of One Future Collective, says, “It is very important embody queer, trans and non-binary within the menstruation discourse as a result of not solely girls menstruate, individuals of all genders menstruate. And, together with this in our curriculum, conversations and dialogues ensures illustration, rights, entry to merchandise, companies, coverage and infrastructure required by anybody who menstruates.”

A non-inclusive MHM area would imply perpetuating a taboo inside a taboo. “To not embody the truth that individuals of various genders menstruate within the mainstream discourse is to erase our id, our our bodies and our experiences. It brings visibility, it normalises this as one thing that occurs, and as a consequence of that it permits you to get assist, entry rights, and get social safety, which in any other case doesn’t exist,” provides Morarka.

* The names of adolescent ladies have been modified to guard their identities.

This story is a part of the Laadli Media Fellowship 2022.

Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based unbiased journalist with particular pursuits in gender, well being and well-liked tradition. She is a winner of the Laadli Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity 2021.



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