Periods in India: Rural Taboos and Education

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A post by education consultant and writer Gwen Bellinger:

In early September, 2015, I found myself standing in front of a group of adolescent girls while my colleague held up colorful pamphlets about menstruation and sanitation. I tried to read the room to determine if the girls felt embarrassed, bored, scared…At the time, I knew taboos against menstruating existed in India but, even after living here nearly a year, the subtleties and complexities of the issues are something beyond anything I can truly grasp as an outsider.

“The girls miss school when they are menstruating,” my work colleague told me. An intern in the Haryana Government, she works with “beti bachao beti padhao, a new initiative launched by the Prime Minister to generate awareness of gender inequality while empowering and educating the young girls of the nation. “Sometimes they miss entire weeks of school or exams because they think they are unclean.”

According to an article in The Times of India from 2011, 30% of girls in Northern India drop out of school once they start menstruating.[1] This article explains that 70% of women can’t afford sanitary napkins and 88% are using alternatives such as cloth, ashes, and husk sand.[2]

Sinu Joseph, a menstrual hygiene educator, claims these widely cited statistics have been created using bad data and that reusable clothes do not necessarily need to be replaced by sanitary napkins.[3] In fairness, reusable clothes can be a hygienic alternative, with the proper education, which many women lack. Since women are ashamed to allow the cloths to dry in the sun, many times the cloths never properly dry or become disinfected. According to an article in BBC, 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.[4]

Women of rural India, realistically speaking, can’t afford sanitary napkins. My same colleague who works with this issue told me the story of an NGO that began distributing sanitary napkins to girls in villages. After a few years, the funding stopped flowing in, but the periods did not. The girls were then deprived of the sanitary napkins they had become accustomed to. While a few dollars to someone in the US does not seem like much of an economic burden, to a rural farmer who can make as little as $1.30 USD/day[5], purchasing sanitary napkins isn’t a priority. And the issue with reusable clothes is that not every village woman has been fortunate enough to receive education in feminine hygiene. This is exactly what my colleague was attempting to do during our school visits. Unfortunately, she said the girls remained largely disinterested.

Recently, a South Indian man named Arunachalam Muruganantham is being applauded for inventing a cost-effective sanitary napkin. After asking his wife why she resorted to an unsanitary rag each month (which she hid secretly from her husband due to the taboo), she replied that purchasing sanitary napkins would cut into their monthly milk budget. He spent over four years researching how to create a cost-effective product and lost his family, money, and the support of his community in the process. Not only did he succeed in his quest, creating a sanitary napkin which can sell for 2.5 rupees each (nearly $0.27), he also is employing millions of women and girls around the country to make them. It’s a touching story, I highly encourage everyone to read about it here or watch the Ted talk below.

 

 

Unfortunately, the taboo still negatively impacts millions of women in India. In villages across the country, young girls receive very little information about what is happening to their bodies. The subject is so taboo, they feel as though they cannot ask questions. Sometimes women are forbidden from entering the kitchen while menstruating, even to simply have a drink of water. Some believe a menstruating woman will spoil the food. They must eat separately from the rest of the family and cannot enter the ‘Puja’ room, a room for prayer.[6]

In some parts of rural Maharashtra, women are even banished to outside of the village to live in a gaokor, a special hut for menstruating women. These huts have no kitchen since women are “too impure” to cook, meaning they must rely on family members to bring them food. One NGO visited 223 gaokors and found that 98% lack a proper bed, electricity, and another amenities.[7] Wild animals are common around the remotely located gaokors, putting the safety of the women at risk. Women are unable to play or work, and simply must sit and talk to kill time, unless they must spend their five days in the gaokor alone.

The conditions of menstruating women in India vary greatly. By no means does everyone in India believe menstruating women are unclean or practice shunning women. In the rural areas, some beliefs are extreme, such as those who shun women to the gaokors. In other circumstances, some simply a lack of education, which can create unhygienic practices or unhealthy body-image issues. Of course, as in any society, and especially India, the divide between rural and urban populations, or between those denied proper education and those who have received one, can be staggering.

Urban Life

I live in a decently “progressive” city in India. It’s wealthy and many of the residents are very well educated. The majority are interested in Western culture, some have family living in the US, others simply really like to watch ‘Friends.’ Everyone I spend my free time with is young and well aware of the world around them. One of my American friends feels comfortable talking casually about her period with her male Indian roommates and no one bats an eye at the topic. It’s a different world than that of the rural schoolhouse I visited with my colleague. While still facing discrimination, urban women are in a better position to speak out than their rural counterparts. Better educated at home and in school, these women understand the science of menstruation and are able to recognize misogyny in the patriarchal society. These are the women who are changing social norms and crushing taboos in India.

 

My friend aside, not all women feel comfortable talking about menstruation in the urban environment. Sanitary pads are available in the markets, but they often appear quite large and bulky. I’ve seen tampons in the large supermarket in the mall, but I don’t believe there are any tampons with applicators in India. People buy and own these items, they talk about the subject in the classroom, but there are still issues with women feeling ashamed of the natural process of their bodies.

The biggest taboo I see for urban women with menstruation is the prevalent idea that menstruating women cannot enter the mundir, or Hindu temple, due to the impurity. Recently, an Indian temple chief said women should only be allowed to enter a temple once a machine can detect whether or not they are “pure” (not menstruating) or “impure” (menstruating).

Women quickly launched a social media campaign in protest. The #happytobleed campaign attracted thousands of followers and news agencies world-wide. Women posted photos of signs, often written on sanitary napkins, with the #happytobleed. Others tweeted the viral hashtag with uplifting words about the female body and the beauty of giving life.

After researching this campaign online, I began looking at other youtube videos and articles about menstruation and taboos in India. In one youtube video, the interviewer asks university-educated women on the street in Delhi about their experiences. Picking through the English and the small amount of Hindi I understand, the conversation didn’t seem that much different than the US. Some said people didn’t want to talk about menstruating because it’s “gross,” while one girl openly admitted that her boyfriend didn’t even mind having sex while she was menstruating (which, honestly, after living here for so long, I am surprised to hear her say. Pre-material sex is something that happens but is also not spoken about publicly).

Likewise, I asked one of my male friends here in Chandigarh his thoughts on the subject. He told me that women in rural areas can’t afford sanitary napkins and pointed me in the direction of Mr. Muruganantham’s invention. He said that everyone learns about it in school now. “We know it as part of biology,” he said casually. I kept pressing him about the taboo,  and he told me his ex-girlfriend didn’t want to enter a temple during her cycle. He encouraged her to enter, telling her the taboo is an archaic belief and that God doesn’t care if she is menstruating. As for everyone who cares: how will they ever come to know?

While I haven’t announced my period to any dinner parties yet, I am happy that women in India are standing up for their right to bleed, that uneducated men can see the importance in low-cost sanitary napkins, and that both sexes can and will cast aside old taboos and encourage women to do the same.

 

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Gwen Bellinger currently works in Panchkula, India with the Department of Education to increase the quality of Indian schools. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling; trying to learn new languages; and pursuing her hobbies of reading, writing, photography, and videography. You can visit her travel blog at Gwengetsglobal.com

Gwen Bellinger

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-34900825

http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/12/13/458321907/indian-women-flout-menstrual-taboos-by-saying-theyre-happytobleed?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=2040

Photo1: http://www.theweek.in/features/society/women-launch-happy-to-bleed-campaign.html Reuters/New Delhi | November 25, 2015

Photo2: http://www.vocativ.com/254024/protesting-menstrual-taboos-with-maxi-pads/

By Tracy Clark-Flory Nov 23, 2015 at 5:52 PM ET

[1] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/70-cant-afford-sanitary-napkins-reveals-study/articleshow/7344998.cms

[2] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/70-cant-afford-sanitary-napkins-reveals-study/articleshow/7344998.cms

[3] http://swarajyamag.com/culture/why-india-doesnt-need-the-sanitary-napkin-revolution

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26260978

[5] https://data.gov.in/catalog/average-daily-wage-rate-rural-india

[6] https://sanitationupdates.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/we-dont-talk-about-it-at-all-the-taboo-of-menstruation-in-rural-maharashtra/

[7] From a quote by Dr Dilip Barsagade, the founder of local NGO Society of People’s Action in Rural Services and Health (Sparsh) in http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/dec/22/india-menstruation-periods-gaokor-women-isolated

6 responses »

  1. Way to go, Gwen! Wonderful, informative piece that will make American women appreciate the ease of dealing with their own periods. We have it good!

  2. It certainly puts the odd grumble I used to have about there not being a vending machine in the office loos into perspective!
    Even the bulky old Dr White’s looped towels my mum used to use would seem like luxury to the women referred to in the article.

    With regard to attitudes to menstruation, these have changed over the last 40 years here in the UK, my mums generation didn’t discuss their periods except with a few of their close (female) friends and even then they used euphemisms such as “the Curse”. I can remember her being horrified when the first tampon adverts appeared on TV.!

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