Power of periods

Amrita Prasad
Sunday, 26 May 2019

Ahead of Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), Amrita Prasad speaks to organisations and individuals who are working at educating women on hygiene practices and breaking the taboos associated with periods

The trait of purity is often attributed to women; rather our gender has to be custodian of purity, and all things chaste. Why else would a simple act of women entering temples or other places of religious worship, be a matter of national debate, protests and strife?

A biological process — one which helps in procreation — is looked on as impure, and hence it is often cloaked in darkness and ignorance by socity at large. The content of this article does not question your faith. But what it does highlight is the health of women, who do not have access to sanitary products or the basic infrastructure like toilets to help relieve themselves in clean and hygienic conditions. 

It’s time we realised that there is no agenda when women and teenaged girls aspire to use sanitary napkins for those five days of the month. They are not flouting any societal dictum. But before we get to the stage when both rural and urban women talk freely of menstruation, without any guilt or shame, we need to cross a few milestones. And, they include low cost sanitary napkins or cloth pads and clean toilets. 

This journey begins with breaking the taboos. Menstrual Hygiene Day (MH Day), a global advocacy platform that brings together the voices and actions of non-profits, government agencies, individuals, private sector and the media to promote good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is working towards this. 

Observed on May 28, MH Day talks of campaigns that help break the silence, raises awareness and changes negative social norms around menstrual hygiene management and catalyses action at global, national and local levels. 

No shame in this
For many of us living in cities, born in educated and financially better off families, menstruation is a normal biological process that occurs every month. We can openly discuss about it with friends and colleagues, we can enter the kitchen and cook, when we are menstruating, sleep on the comfortable bed and go out and socialise. 

The scenario in rural India sadly is completely opposite. Women are under the pressure of social prejudices, stigmas, which dictate that ‘Plants will die if a menstruating woman touches them’, ‘A menstruating woman’s shadow must not fall on Tulsi plant’, ‘Menstruating women shouldn’t touch pickles or papads’. 

Deep-rooted practices are difficult to be dislodged. One reason is because menstrual practices are associated with traditions, customs and societal norms. Huda Shaikh a nutritionist and clinical dietitian, who has founded an initiative called The Period Movement India, says changing the outlook of women, whether urban or rural, towards menstruation is never easy.

“When we try to educate women and tell them that menstruation is absolutely normal, the replies that we get range between, ‘Humare me to aisa hi hota hai’, to ‘Ye to ganda hota hai’,  ‘Bhagwan ka diya hua shraap hai aurat ko’ and so on. This is especially true of older women. But the younger generation is willing to change,” says Shaikh.

Agreeing with Shaikh that school-going girls (Std VI-VII) are willing to change, Samridha Sarkar of The Period Fellowship, an initiative of Sukhibhava Foundation, says, “In semi-urban places, the population of school-going girls feels positive about breaking the taboos. I have heard many schoolgirls share that they would not forbid themselves or anyone around them from visiting temples or kitchen during their periods. However, things start to change between IX and XII grades. Some girls acknowledge that they understand that the menstrual bleeding isn’t impure, but they are compelled to follow these practices by their parents and elders of the family. In the long run, it is a bunch of women who decide to put a stop to practising these taboos completely.” 

Referring to young girls who are taking the lead, Dr Sushma M N, who works in rural areas of Yadgir in Karnataka, adds, “The adolescent girls in the schools where MHM sessions have been facilitated, have understood the relevance/irrelevance of those beliefs. But they do not have the agency to go against these practices as the family would not approve. However, there have been instances where the girls have experimented touching plants during periods to check if it will really kill them. They have realised that there is no harm done and that has given them the confidence to break these myths, for the upcoming generations, at least. Through such small experiments, the myths and taboos can be addressed. Although it’s very time and effort consuming.” 

Go grassroots
The efforts at educating, spreading awareness get a shot in the arm, when the subject is propelled in popular domain, through films, teleseries, documentaries and such. A case in point are films like Padman and Period. End of Sentence which at least started conversation on the subject. 

Ajoy Khandheria, founder of Gramin Healthcare, which provides affordable primary healthcare, says that visual medium helps in starting a conversation on the subject and organisations and individuals have to take a multi-dimensional approach to further educate men and women about period hygiene in slums and parts of the country where illiteracy is at the highest. 

“Health clinics or health centres should have counsellors to educate women about menstrual health. We also need initiatives to make sanitary napkins more accessible to women. It has been observed that women in rural areas don’t switch to using them because they find it uncomfortable to buy napkins from local shops. Moreover, majority of women cannot afford to buy relatively costly products,” he adds. 

Talking on the impact that films have on this subject, Sarkar says, “The film Padman did help in breaking the silence on menstruation even at village level. But films don’t go into depth; they don’t talk about hygiene to be maintained during menstruation or how to maintain the hygiene while using sanitary products. For example, in a day how frequently a pad should be changed? Where should one dry the cloth pad?” 

The only way forward is consistent work. Shaikh also believes that lot of  work needs to be done at the grassroot level. “Period hygiene hasn’t really been taken seriously. Also poor or underprivileged cannot afford a pack of sanitary napkins. They cannot watch a movie made on periods or sanitary napkins, until it has been sponsored by some NGO,” says Shaikh, adding that menstrual education, finances are key concern areas. 

Laxmi Adhikari, another member of The Period Fellowship programme, says that in UP, they encouraged women to use hygienic products by making references to Padman. She adds, “I do not completely agree that only a film is enough to create awareness. But I have realised that a strong impact can be seen through the visual effects.” 

The warriors
Many NGOs and individuals have come forward to donate money so that sanitary pads can be bought and distributed amongst needy women. But that’s not enough. One, the napkins have to be readily available, second, they have to be cost efficient and third, they have to be disposed off in a proper manner. 

Taking the example of state of affairs in Uttar Pradesh, Adhikari states that the unavailability of sanitary napkins is prevalent not only in rural villages, but also in the schools, where the government was going to provide it on a regular basis. “Almost all the schools that I have visited do not have access to sanitary napkins that they should ideally have. The scenario in villages is even worse. Sanitary napkins are not readily available,” she adds. 

Talking about her work in Karnataka region, Dr Sushma says that a product supply chain is being established to provide menstrual sanitary products at a subsidised price. “The women and girls are being provided with Shuchi sanitary napkins for free through an initiative by the Government of Karnataka,” she adds. 

Sarkar, who works in rural Rajasthan, says that the school-going girls are getting free sanitary pads from the schools on monthly, bi-monthly or as-and-when-required basis. Girls, who have not yet attained menarche, give the pads to their mothers or sisters who might require them. “We conduct pad-stitching workshops for women who use only cloth during periods. We provide the material to make the cloth pad and then train the women on how to stitch it,” she adds. 

Gramin Healthcare, on the other hand, is providing low-cost sanitary napkins. They are charging Rs 11 for three sanitary napkins at their centres. Khandheria says, “Our main focus is to spread awareness about menstrual hygiene. Our doctors and paramedical team have been conducting regular workshops. Even our health educators/Gramin brand ambassadors are sensitised about menstrual hygiene from time to time. We have even launched a campaign called Chuppi Todo and Meri Bhi Zimmedari, both for men and women.” 

Shaikh with her team, goes to slums and underprivileged schools where they educate the girls and even distribute sanitary napkins. She says, “We have covered only a few parts in Mumbai. Many women still do not have access to menstrual hygiene products. Menstrual education must be taught in schools, both in rural and urban areas. A girl needs to know about menstruation or periods even before she enters menarche. The chapter in the textbook which talks about menstruation should not be skipped and girls and boys need to be sensitised about the issue. Plus, there should be sanitary napkin vending machines across the country, especially at railway stations and schools.” The Period Movement India has also joined hands with other NGOs in order to ensure enough supply of sanitary napkins. It has tried to reach out to corporates too.  

Sarkar believes that merely distributing free sanitary napkins cannot be the end-all solution. “Creating a system where the pads can be disposed properly will be a great step. Women complain that they find used pads in the middle of their fields, school principals have approached us asking for incinerators. As for infrastructure, most buildings, public toilets and school toilets are not very period-friendly. Arrangement for hygienic space to change the absorbent, running water, proper dustbins are the areas we need to work on. In the tribal belt, girls do not attend school for the first two-three days because they say they have problems changing pads in the school toilet.”  

Adhikari shares her observations on this issue. She says, “Women in UP are more attracted towards the reusable products and cloth pads, which they think are cost-effective and don’t pollute their fields either.”

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