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

The Ladies Room Door Art Series: Part Twenty-six

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More doors! Thank you, one and all!

From Candace, unisex door above at Z Burger in Washington, DC.

Below, from Susan E, who found this lovely door at the Palo Verde National Park in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.

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From Beth’s recent trip to Prague, this pretty golden girl.

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Beth found this in Amsterdam.

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From Gail, the Rodeo Shop in Eaton, Ohio.

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From the nicest McDonalds I’ve ever visited, near Clinton, NC. Love the simple silver W.

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I snapped this door at Provisions on the Cape Fear River in Southport, North Carolina.

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and on this one at the Yacht Basin Eatery.

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This is Fishy Fishy, another favorite restaurant in Southport.

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I found this door  the KM 38 BaJa Grill in Wilmington, North Carolina. Cliff used to get annoyed if the second we entered a restaurant, I headed to the ladies room. I think he’s resigned to it now. I used to pretend I NEEDED to find the ladies room. “Oh, I had too much tea,” I’d say or some such story. Finally, I just spoke the truth: “I can’t relax until I know if they’ve got a good door or not.”

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Judi  found this great door at Joe’s Crab Shack in San Francisco.13138789_10207676829052505_6455821965049233120_n

And that sums up another edition of our Ladies Room Door Series!

Keep up your summer searches. Thanks one and all.

Downsizing (and Upsizing): Painting Happy!

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Cliff and I will move into our new house within the next six months. As you can read in these posts, I’ve been downsizing for a while now. But in the midst of downsizing, we’re upsizing too!

We bought the painting above through Mike’s Art Truck, a traveling art gallery created by Karen and Greg Mack to promote the work of folk artists.  Read their fascinating story here. I love the mission!

Mike’s Art Truck brought the work of Bob Hart to the Hillsborough Visitor’s Center in late April. We loved meeting Bob, whose credo is to “paint happy.” Lonesome Balloons was our favorite painting, so we bought it for our new house. 

A few weeks later, Bob wrote to thank us. I couldn’t resist asking him to put together a few words for Friend for the Ride. I knew I wanted to post his wonderful painting.

Bob’s credo touches me since I strive to be an upbeat writer. I don’t sugarcoat life, and I suspect Bob doesn’t either. I just give life the most positive slant I can. But back to Bob. Here’s what he wrote for Friend for the Ride:

I paint Happy.  I’m happy when I paint.

The year after I retired, I entered one of my paintings in a local contest called “Art in the Air.”  Winners would have their paintings put up on billboards around town for a year. It was the first time I submitted any of my work, anywhere.  I didn’t expect to win.  My painting, “Young Girls Pick Them Every One,” was one of six selected. When I was called and told I was one of the winners, I was like a kid at Christmas.

Winners were treated to a nice reception and asked to speak about their painting. Four of the six artists talked about the angst they experience when they paint, and I know throughout history this is how many artists feel when they paint.

When it was my turn to speak, I told the group that I paint happy and that I am happy when I paint…..no angst, no anxiety, no despair,  just smiles and laughter.

Later that year, I attended my niece’s wedding in Columbia, South Carolina. Everyone was happy, and I took a lot of pictures, including many of the wedding party.  Emma, my niece, and her bridesmaids were beautiful, giddy, and happy. Their colors and their flowers and their smiles made for happy pictures, so I started painting pictures of make-believe wedding parties.

This painting, “Lonesome Balloons,” and others like it, was my next series of paintings, combining elements of  “Young Girls Pick Them Everyone” and the wedding parties. I started adding balloons to give some movement to my work.

I hope my paintings make you smile and laugh…..and make you happy.

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Take a look at Bob’s website.

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Thank you, Bob! 

Marriage: Fighting and Mending after All These Years

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Walter and Antonia

A post by writer Doreen Frick

My neighbor, no young man, ran out of his house after his wife. His wife was in their car, backing it out into the road, he chasing after her, crying. I don’t think either of them saw me; they were in their own private drama, and now I’d become part of it. I seriously did not know old people had arguments that led to stuff like this. As she drove off, I watched him trudge back to the house, head down, and heart on his sleeve.

This was none of my business. I only knew these folks because he walked his dog and talked to us when we passed on the sidewalk walking ours, or when we chatted small-talk as the two of them sat on their porch on a summer afternoon. Their age I would guess was late seventies. I never asked what he did for a living. I think they had a son. She wore a lot of makeup and seemed the boss. That was my opinion but judging by the tiff I watched from my driveway, it was pretty obvious she wore the pants. He looked like a broken man and my heart ached for him.

I wasn’t about to go over and see what I could do for the poor guy, and I assume she made her way home and there was hell to pay, but that’s conjecture. Looking back on it these thirty-something years later, maybe she had a legitimate beef and maybe they worked on it, but the way their private matters played out in public has left a searing image in my mind.

Old people fight. Old women drive off in a huff. Old men sometimes run after them in tears. I’d never considered such a thing before.

Thinking back on this couple I seem to remember they had a son, and he died when he was a grown man. I know the old man took a liking to our youngest boy and nicknamed him Jo-Jo. I think he was the only one who called Joey that after age five and by age ten, Joey preferred being called Joe even though his given name was Joel. But whenever our dog-walking neighbor saw Joey and friends outside playing football, his old eyes would light up, and he’d call out a grand hello to his buddy, Jo-Jo.

My son Joe grew up and so did his parents, and eventually we all moved away one by one to college and other adventures on the far corners of the country, leaving our neighbors with the dog and the porch they used to sit on far behind. Joey got married, and so did his sisters and brother. Once in a while we all congregated back in the general vicinity of the old homestead, but it never occurred to any of us, I guess, to ask about the old neighbors we used to see when we played outside or walked our dogs.

I could google them, but they’re long gone I’m sure. I could ask their next-door neighbor what became of them; she kept in contact with the whole Avenue no doubt and could fill me in, but then I’d have to tell her why I’m asking, and in perfect honesty, I’m not sure why I would be.

Maybe I want to know if they were happy. Was old age kind to them? Was that little incident in the driveway an anomaly? Was she given to outbursts? What did he do for a living?

But the questions aren’t as important as the memory they gave me: this picture of older people struggling just like young marrieds do, like a movie in my mind that keeps playing that one scene and then stops there with the sad man walking back to the house and the mad woman racing off to God knows where.

Somewhere in that scene I see myself. And sometimes when emotions get the better of me; it’s not the prettiest of pictures. When the smoke clears and my logic returns, there’s a very real part of me that’s thankful for that scene that played out on my watch one summer afternoon.

I don’t know how their story ended, but perhaps that’s just part of the cycle. We live together, breathe the same air, come to a crossroads, let it out in the open, learn to listen after it’s all been said ten times over, agree to disagree.

And sometimes the beauty of this cycle is the aftermath, the time put in to the marriage weaves its magic like the clicking of Dorothy’s heels in the land of Oz, and we truly believe There’s No Place Like Home (with him).

 

Mark and Doreen

Photos: Doreen didn’t have a photo of the old couple she watched argue that day, so she sent two lovely family wedding photos. At the top are husband Wes’s grandparents, Walter and Antonia, married in Nebraska in 1916. The photo directly above shows Doreen and Wes on their wedding day in Pennsylvania in 1972.

Doreen Frick is a 61-year-old writer from Philadelphia, who has lived in Washington State, New Mexico, and finally, half-settled in Ord, Nebraska, where her husband’s people homesteaded over one hundred years ago. She first began to write when she journaled in a tablet during her days raising four children, some dairy cows, and a horse, chickens, and the welcome stray cats that found their way to her place.
Doreen Frick