Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Sonali was excited about going and meeting her friends, when she felt the dampness first. What followed next was a host of instructions on use of sanitary pads by her mother and advice to rest. She did not really understand why she bled and was woefully unprepared for this. Later that day, her grandma brought her favorite chocolates, but handed them over in a rather strange manner. She sat rather far away from her. Her grandma narrated how when she first got her periods she had to live separately from the rest of the family. She stayed in another room and slept on the floor until her cycle ended. Just when Sonali started to feel really lucky that she was not from her grandma's time and felt sympathy for her ordeal, she added, “These days girls do not follow those customs. Child, don't come to my room for a few days because you are “dirty”. Sonali was left appalled and questioned whether the society has really progressed afterall.

A natural process like menstruation comes with its own myths and taboos. Only it changes the form and shape as is evident from the story above. The "untouchability" aspect of menstruation has only changed its form but it's pervasive effect still exists. This 'ladies' issue' is tucked in safely inside the closet as a topic to be discussed in hush whispers. Menstruation and its painful hardships bind the people who experience it together. How many times have you asked a girl of your age to check the back of your dress? With friends often, with women who could be strangers? Even they hardly deny it to help in my experience. It becomes a subject of discussion and lighthearted jokes among this inner circle. But what is common among all the experiences are the various taboos associated with it.

“Don't touch the pickle”

“Don't enter the kitchen”

“Don't go near the place of worship”

“Don't sit with the male members”

“Don't touch other non-menstruating female”

and many more such instructions are casually propagated.

However absurd the taboos and related myths may sound, they are passed on from one generation to another more frequently and strictly than actual useful advice on how to manage it. Young girls are left to wade through this quagmire alone and their young minds institutionalize these taboos unquestioningly. By the time they start questioning these, it becomes too late. Unlearning is often a far more difficult process than learning. Those women who do manage to unlearn and pass the threshold to see the other side of the taboo, find themselves ostracized by the larger society and without support from their own brethren.

The 'unsaid' of menstruation often poses critical health hazards, especially when a menstruating person lacks access to something as basic and as simple as clean water. The situation is particularly dire in rural areas of India where women undertake the back breaking physical toil of fetching water from far away wells for drinking or cooking purposes. For personal uses, women rely on unclean and unhygienic sources of water, use old ragged clothes, paper or grass during their cycles exposing themselves to urinary tract infections and even cancer. Period poverty is an international concern and a monthly reality for Indian rural women. Water security, proper toilet facilities and access to sanitary products. A large number of rural girls drop out of school as soon as they start menstruating due to lack of toilet infrastructure and conservative thinking of parents.

Menstruation has an angle of climate too. Green and organic are favorite woke terms of the day but how many have been talking about menstrual waste? Improper disposal and lack of segregation pose a health hazard for sanitation workers. Burning the waste generates toxic fumes adding to the overall harm caused to health and environment. A study quoted by 'Down to Earth' reports that around 113,000 tonnes of sanitary napkin waste reach India's landfills every year. Even though village level or hostel level small incinerators are used to dispose off the menstrual waste, a long term viable option is a reason for research and development in this area.

But how far are we on the menstrual awareness scale? There is indeed a rise among the masses to create a safe space to talk about menstruation. Awareness campaigns run in both urban and rural India by NGO's and associations which has brought some much needed progress in rural women's health. The Indian government in 2018 exempted sanitary napkins from GST. There is also a rising number of women shifting to tampons or menstrual cups as alternatives to sanitary napkins. Several companies have added period leaves for the benefit of their female employees.

What more can be done? Provide sanitation products in workplaces, railways etc. Allow subsidies on alternatives to sanitary napkins, promote their production and use. Free of cost sanitary napkins must be provided in rural areas and infrastructure must be made robust to strengthen their access to clean water. We must create a space where women and young girls feel empowered with adequate information on menstrual management. The talks surrounding the topic must shed the general pallor of embarrassment. Schools could bring health practitioners to deliver talks and create awareness among young girls.

Menstruation is an overarching subject that overlaps health, education and climate issues. It cannot be brushed under the carpet as a mere 'ladies' issue'. There are so many young girls like Sonali, trying to understand their bodies while also trying to manage the absurd taboos imposed upon them.

Efforts thus far have brought us only to a small distance from the starting point. The long path towards complete awareness still needs to be covered. But to see that fruitful liberating end, individual and community steps must be taken against the taboos and myths that lie on the path like prickly thorns. To unshroud the truth behind them, one must continuously question, challenge and reject them.

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