Menstruation: a monthly visitor for 50 percent of humankind. Yet, it’s a subject of taboo across cultures.
Some believe period blood to be contaminated and don’t permit women to enter religious settings and kitchens, and others think that if a menstruating woman touches flowers, they’ll die. In the relatively developed parts of the planet, period stigma forces you to claim to have a headache instead of expressing that you have throbbing period cramps to avoid swimming or feel the need to hide your sanitary pad deep inside your pocket while going to the restroom. Asking your friend if she has a tampon is nothing less than a cloak-and-dagger operation where you use discreet, muted facial expression instead of the word tampon. However, this stigma takes a horrifying shape in places like South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East where the sight of menstrual blood is unacceptable.
Millions of girls are dying due to the absence of menstrual hygiene, being forced to drop out of middle school, and having to use twigs and leaves as an alternative to pads. In countries where the goal is to keep women in school, providing accessible and affordable period supplies is a pre-requisite.
According to an Indian Health Ministry backed report published by NGO Darsa, 23 million Indian girls drop out of school annually due to lack of functioning toilets, the second major reason being household chores. 42.6 million women risk their lives every month by using home-grown alternatives for menstrual products like old fabric, rags, sand, ash, newspapers, dried leaves, hay, and plastic because they cannot afford anything else, and 71% of them remain unaware about the concept of menstruation until menarche.
In both rural and urban areas, alarming incidents have occurred when educators have acted on long standing myths which state that if a menstruating woman bathes, talks to men, or eats the same food as everyone else, she will either bring danger to the family or become pregnant. For instance, in 2017, 70 girls were stripped naked in a school in Muzzafarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, for a menstrual blood ‘check’.
Additionally, having a period is so unaffordable in Kenya that 1 in 10 15-year-olds have to sell their bodies get money to pay for menstrual products.
Nepal’s sanitation system is strongly linked to culture, and since schools are considered auspicious, no toilets are attached to them. 83% of girls use cloth and have to frequently travel long distances to reach the nearest toilet and clean themselves with questionable quality of water. Menstruating girls are made to stay in secluded, unhygienic huts because they are considered polluted. This practice adds up to missing an entire week of school each month. The menstrual huts in Nepal kill at least two women every year.
From a ban on advertisements on sanitary napkins in 1990 to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare launching the Freeday Pad Scheme, India has indeed come a long way. Started in 2010, this scheme aimed at providing sanitary napkins at subsidized rates for rural girls in 152 districts across 20 states. Adequate knowledge of menstrual hygiene and development of local sanitary napkin manufacturing units is encouraged by Swachh Bharat Mission (rural) and self-help groups are to help in propagating such efforts. Since then, various initiatives have been taken by the GoI to combat period poverty.
The Nepalese government took an anti-menstrual hut initiative and declared seclusion of menstruating women illegal, posing a fine of $30 on offenders.
Kenya’s government prioritized its girls too, and started distributing free pads to disadvantaged groups that would otherwise find them too expensive and resort to socks, rags and chicken feathers to get through the day.
When the problem of absence of menstrual sensitivity hits under-developed nations, allocating large funds for women and girls is certainly difficult. Governments cannot spend millions of dollars on making sanitary pads when they have more urgent needs like hunger and homelessness to address.
However, the tremendous benefits of providing free products allow it to be considered an option. Investing in girls’ education is investing in a country’s future. Girls who function efficiently in school and complete secondary education will eventually become assets to their country’s economy and can help bring societies out of extreme poverty once they start earning. If not free, then subsidized and tax-free products could ease the situation.
Although it is true that studies like UNICEF’s Analysis of Menstrual Hygiene Practices, 2016 failed to find a strong correlation between decline in school absence and availability of menstrual kits, they have all stated that there is compelling anecdotal evidence attained from school staff and students that the presence of pads, pain-killers, and restrooms in schools prevents girls from having to run home every hour or missing a full day of school. Furthermore, research in Nepal found that the adoption of sanitary habits is bound to increase attendance by at least 20%.
Multiple organizations and individuals around the globe have started local revolutions to combat menstrual taboos and help young girls get the education they need. From menstrual art trying to battle stigma to programs such as POAC (Promise of a Cycle) in Nepal and MHM (Menstrual Hygiene Management) in Kenya, the idea that menstruation is a private matter to be discussed at home is being shattered.
A recent Bollywood movie, ‘Pad-Man’, brought the story of Muruganatham under spotlight. Disgusted by the prevalence of stigmas in rural India, Muruganatham invented a machine over a decade ago to make low cost sanitary pads. His initiative not only helped girls gain access to hygienic and cheap pads but also provided jobs to thousands of rural women. He reaches a town, sets up his machine, trains women, and moves to the next. In the next 30 years, Muruganatham hopes to reach 100% penetration.
Whether you menstruate or not, you can always join the fight to end menstrual taboos and help keep young girls safe. Whether on social media or in-person, challenge the stigma by engaging in conversations. You can also support and donate to campaigns like #neveraloneperiod by Days For Girls that distribute pads to people who cannot afford them. After all, girls are 50% of this world’s potential, and if a pack of cotton blobs a month allows them to practice their right to education and feel empowered, why choose to ignore it?