By Muskaan Vasandani
When an average young girl in India is given her first “talk” on periods by her mother, a large part of that 15-minute-long, awkward, arduous conversation consists of a list of activities she is forbidden to do when on her period. The first on this list is, not surprisingly, talking about menstruation.
Menstruation in India has always been a huge taboo. From girls having numerous restrictions when on their periods to pharmacies wrapping sanitary napkins in the paper several times so they aren’t conspicuous; the period stigma is deeply ingrained in urban as well as rural parts of the country.
Periods are amongst the leading factors for girls to drop out of school, often to get married early. It is also common to skip school during menstruation, largely due to a lack of toilets or safe places to change their pads. And because of the reason that menstruation is thought of as such an impure and filthy process, the problems it causes are not addressed, and thus, no amends are made to actually solve these issues.
It is a well-understood fact that talking about a problem is the first step towards finding a solution to it. Sadly, in India talking about menstruation itself is a huge issue. In a video for BBC titled “100 Women 2014: The Taboo of Menstruating in India”, Roopa Jha interviews numerous women from rural parts of the country, who describe their deplorable experience with periods. “My family treats me like an untouchable. I'm not allowed into the kitchen, I can't enter the temple, I can't sit with others." These are the words of a 32-year-old Manju Baluni from a remote village in Uttarakhand, a hilly state in the north of India.
“The biggest problem was managing it. It still is. I feel embarrassed, angry, and very dirty,” another interviewee, Margdarshi, a fifteen-year-old girl from the same village says that the experience of getting her first period was so traumatic that she almost considered dropping out of school. With girls discontinuing their schooling because of such a trivial reason, this has a huge impact on their education, and eventually, their whole lives.
This whole idea of shame that surrounds a biological process that is as normal as any other, is indeed the main reason why menstrual health and hygiene is so compromised in the country. According to the NFHS (National Family Health Survey), as many as 51.8% of young women in the age group of 15-24 from rural areas still use unhygienic methods like cloth for menstrual protection, as opposed to 22.5% from urban areas. -Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India.
These figures indicate a striking connection between the average affordability of the population and their ability to use hygienic menstrual protection methods. This directly implies the lack of affordable and accessible menstrual protection methods in India. The consequence of this is the abundance of severe and sometimes fatal reproductive tract infections among the women of the country, especially in the villages and among the less privileged sections of the society. Despite these findings, this stigma is plenty everywhere in the country. A recent study by a sanitary towel manufacturer found that 75% of women living in cities still buy their pads wrapped in a brown bag or newspaper because of the shame associated with menstruation. Evidently, even amongst the elite, this natural cycle is a “hush-hush” affair for no rhyme or reason.
This phenomenon, to a certain extent, can also be associated with the patriarchy that is still prevalent in society. Despite year-long opposition, until 2018, the Government of India had imposed a 12% Goods and Service Tax on sanitary napkins, while keeping Viagra and condoms tax-free. The fact that it took until 2018 to actually exempt this extremely essential commodity from taxes, says a lot about the deeply rooted patriarchal mindset of most people. The voices of women have been suppressed for ages, a fake concept of “shame” instilled in them from the time they are little girls.
Thankfully, India is undergoing a plethora of change. The citizens of the country are finally standing up for the women of the country. In 2017, law-maker Sushmita Dev launched a petition to demand for a reduction or total removal of taxes on pads, citing that about 70% of women in the country could not afford them. The online petition gained more than 400,000 signatures. After relentlessly campaigning for almost a year, the tax on sanitary napkins was finally removed on 21st June, 2018, signifying a new era in the country’s feminist movement. This was the very first time that women and men campaigned for a cause that was so intimately associated with females and was subject to years of strong religious and cultural stigma. People have finally started to realize that the only way to deal with the problem of menstrual hygiene is to create awareness. Aditi Gupta, a graphic designer from the state of Maharashtra, published a comic book on periods called “Menstrupedia”, in three different languages, and it was an instant hit among adolescent girls in the state. -Channel4News, Facebook.
“Padman” is a Bollywood movie based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man who changed the face of menstrual hygiene in rural India. When he observed his wife using dirty rags as menstrual protection, he was extremely concerned about her health. On asking her why she refrained from using sanitary napkins, she said that they couldn’t really afford a commodity as “luxurious”. He then embarked on the arduous journey of manufacturing cheap, low cost and effective sanitary napkins for women. He was mocked and ridiculed constantly, but in the end, emerged victoriously. Today, this school dropout, who started his life as a welder in the rural part of southern India, has revolutionized the sanitary napkin industry by developing an innovative machine that costs less than INR 100,000. His invention has led to the mushrooming growth of women’s cooperatives in rural areas that mass produce cheap sanitary napkins. These cooperatives do a great job at empowering women and at the same time, solving the problem of affordability of sanitary napkins. Also, since it is women themselves who are producing and selling this product, there is more acceptance of the product among women, thereby increasing sales.
Arunachalam Muruganantham is now on the Times Magazine list of the 100 Most Influential People, and the movie “Padman” made a staggering INR 1.2 billion at the Bollywood box office.
"It's not a women issue; it's a human issue, but we have just isolated it. Some of us need to come out of this culture of shame and silence. We need to break it," said Mr. Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj, a non-profit organization that is running campaigns to educate people about menstruation and the myths that surround it. It operates in 21 out of 30 states in India. The organization is also making cheap sanitary towels from recycled clothes to help women who don't have access to safe and hygienic pads. There are many other organizations in the country that are helping women set up small cooperatives that manufacture cheap, low-cost sanitary napkins. This is a great way to improve menstrual hygiene and empower women at the same time.
“The Period Stigma” is something that isn’t just a “female issue”. It has a profound impact on the country's development as a whole. The very mentality that leads to this stigma is the cause of concern here. The reason why feminists in India are taking this issue so seriously and working towards resolving it is that the very crux of this stigma isn’t just women's hygiene- it is their perception in society. If one actually looks at the big picture, a small, very normal part of a woman’s biological cycle makes a huge impact on her life. And this is just because of an archaic view that labels menstrual flow as “impure”. This leads to girls dropping out of school, as no one bothers to make accommodations for them. The irony of the situation is very clearly visible when there are separate, dedicated spaces for women at temples and mosques, but no proper toilets for girls in village schools. This is evident in the country's skewed literacy rates: about 82% for males and a shocking 65% for females.
The place of a woman in society is what the people of the country are trying to change through this movement. One small tax exemption was a huge indication of the awareness among citizens at this point. People are now talking about periods, girls now know that their menses are a completely normal process, and although sanitary napkins are still wrapped in brown paper, no one stares at a woman who buys them from the drug store.
In conclusion, females of this country are now standing up for themselves in a society that has had predominantly patriarchal roots. The feminist movement has come a long way and is focusing on each issue at the grassroots while working towards empowering and uplifting women who live in the least developed areas of the country. The citizens of India have come a long way but have a long way to go.
BBC. 100 Women 2014: The Taboo Of Menstruating In India. 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29727875. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.
Channel4News, The comic book tackling period shaming in India, Facebook
Sanitary Napkins Now Exempt From GST After Year-Long Opposition. 2018, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/sanitary-napkins-now-exempt-from-gst-decides-tax-council-1887368. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.
TED. How I Started A Sanitary Napkin Revolution!. 2012, https://www.ted.com/talks/arunachalam_muruganantham_how_i_started_a_sanitary_napkin_revolution?language=en. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.
The Hindu. 'Napkin Man’ On A Mission To Empower Women. 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/napkin-man-on-a-mission-to-empower-women/article6675132.ece. Accessed 3 Nov 2018.