Breaking the silence around menstruation and reproductive health, India with the world observes Menstrual Hygiene Day today (May 28) in a bid to renew global efforts in making sanitary essentials accessible to all women, and eliminate the stigma associated with periods, especially in rural areas.
At a time when more than half the world’s women are currently of reproductive age, menstrual health is a top priority for many developing nations that are organising awareness drives across schools, clinics, radio stations, even prisons.
What’s the special occasion?
An initiative by Germany-based non-profit organisation WASH United, the day serves as an occasion of various international bodies to recognise and pledge the steps that need to be taken, to make sure no girl or woman is held back because of her period.
Every woman, every girl, everywhere deserves safety, privacy and dignity to manage her menstrual health, tweeted World Bank on the eve of Menstrual Hygiene day, which marks an equally important occasion for men to acknowledge their roles in breaking down cultural stigmas that often hinder dialogue about women’s menstrual health and feminine hygiene.
Above all, it will be a day of observation and deliberation to arrive at viable solutions at ending period poverty.
For millions of girls around the world, getting their periods means a curse and burden—a source of anxiety and fear—because they don’t have the information or resources to manage menstruation.
The lack of scientific knowledge about menstruation, poor accessibility and affordability make the situation even more challenging and deplorable for women from vulnerable sections like poor households, slum dwellers, rag-pickers, homeless, incarcerated women, migrants and daily wage labourers.
The natural culmination to ending period poverty, therefore, is menstrual equity.
Roadblocks to menstrual equity
First, the use of unhygienic alternatives has been noted in conservative rural communities, where women to this day resort to torn rags, and even ash and sand as absorbents, during the onset of their menstrual cycle.
According to the National Family Health Survey undertaken across India in 2015-16, sanitary napkins are used by 48.5% of the women in rural areas.
Despite that number being considerably higher at 77.5% in urban areas, nearly 23% of Indian girls reportedly drop out of school when they hit puberty, chiefly due to stigma.
Most girls tend to miss school during periods due to pain, fear of staining clothes, getting teased by classmates, and also due to lack of sanitation and disposal infrastructure for menstrual blood absorbents.
A survey conducted by NGO Sachhi Saheli found that nearly 70% of girls in Delhi have no knowledge of menstruation pre-menarche, suggesting mothers and teachers do not talk to them about menstruation before the onset of their first period.
Improving education and access
Noting the need to keep girls in school to complete their education, experts view that a collective effort needs to be put in to destigmatise menstruation.
Puberty and confidence education drives provide girls the space for having the conversation that is necessary alongside access to sanitary products, which moreover should be subsidised, if not completely free. Girls who are undergoing changes at this time should also be briefed about period-related conditions like dysmenorrhea (abdominal cramps), menorrhagia (heavy menstrual bleeding), mood swings, PCOD, Reproductive Tract Infections (RTIs) and endometriosis — and how to tackle them.
Such education campaigns can also include awareness about the alternatives to sanitary napkins today, like tampons, how they work, and how to operate them. Menstrual educator Sinu Joseph would, however, argue that instead of pushing for disposable menstrual products in villages, we could also rely on the “hundreds of years women have naturally chosen environmental friendly methods like cotton cloth.”
A great example of this is the Garima Abhiyan—a district-wide campaign launched in Simdega, Jharkhand, that is breaking the period taboo by providing its residents with eco-friendly sanitary napkins.
But that alone is not enough. Just like with sanitation and child trafficking and sexual exploitation, menstrual hygiene requires a concerted and coordinated effort from all stakeholders including student volunteers, non-profits, teachers, healthcare professionals, ASHAs, Anganwadi workers and law enforcement authorities—probably with technological solutions in combination with awareness programmes.
Why it matters
Women in rural India continue to struggle with lack of sanitary supplies and access to basic sanitation. Menstruation taboos have become a national talking point, especially in the wake of protests after the Supreme Court lifted a century-old ban on women’s entry to Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple.
The fight to ensure that women who get their period have access to the products and support they need is a hard fight. It is a struggle that affects the privileged and the marginalised alike; yet, the silence around period is deafening. It still grosses people out and forms the basis for gender discrimination, even exclusion, in several communities around the world.
Menstrual Hygiene Day 2019, themed around the message “It’s Time For Action” thus gives people the time to reflect upon the prevailing situation and join hands to break taboos around periods—to change negative social norms, build political priority, and catalyse action for good Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM).
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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