“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”
Centuries of patriarchy has led to a woman’s body not being just her own. So are her periods. Politicized, stigmatized, tabooed talking about periods is a big no-no! But why is a natural body function that occurs in half of the global population is such a shunned topic? Why are menstruators embarrassed and deprived due to a normal body function they have no control on? And was the situation any better for menstruators before the Covid-19 pandemic hit us?
Menstrual blood is differentiated from other body fluids and deemed ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’ due to its deep-rooted cultural associations. This everyday practice of religious dogmatism makes it a topic of taboo and cultural shame for menstruators. Misinformation, taboo, insensitivity, lack of awareness rips women from their ability to bleed with dignity.
But the problem does not end here. Especially in a country like India with rampant poverty and huge economic divide devoid its menstruators to afford menstrual hygiene necessities.
Although the UN has acknowledged menstrual hygiene as a global health issue the current Corona-virus pandemic has clearly worsened the situation.
What Is Period Poverty?
Period poverty refers to the situation when menstruators do not have access to safe and hygienic menstrual resources. This not only includes the access to period products but also the ‘WASH’ facilities which include access to clean and hygienic toilets, running water, availability of soap, and disposal measures for used menstrual objects. Lack of awareness on the subject is also a form of period poverty. Women and transgenders (menstruators) are already a marginalized section of the society, the inaccessibility to something so basic and crucial for their existence reinforces the age-old misogyny and bias for our menstruators. Especially in a country like India where the highly skewed gender ratio and the lack of women participation are topped by the fact that due to the lack of resources roughly 23 million girls drop out of schools annually as they start to menstruate.
The Cultural and Societal Associations
‘Period poverty is not only the poverty of resources but also the poverty of minds.’
From rotting pickle to killing plants, menstruators are blamed for it all. The myths and taboos associated with menstruation are hard to ignore. The decades old myths are still being carried as cultural norms and yet opposition is rare. The myths associated with menstruation gives a sense of shame to the menstruator for a normal body function she has no control on. We have been passing on that baggage of shame and embarrassment generation after generation in the name of traditions. It is proved by the study DASRA conducted in 2014 in which they found out that 70% of mothers considered menstruation ‘dirty’. It should be no surprise that the same emotion is passed on to the next generations. Another study by Youth ki Awaaz on MHM concluded that 80% of menstruators experienced a negative emotion during their first period.
The tradition of Chaupadi runs on similar parameters on shame and segregation where a menstruating woman is isolated in a hut with barely any amenities outside the village or in the forest. This makes the women vulnerable to reproductive diseases, natural calamities, health hazards, molestation and many more. The mental trauma caused doesn’t even require to be mentioned.
This kind of stigma associated with menstruation makes government intervention a difficult matter since women do not feel comfortable to even talk about it.
Impact of Coronavirus on Period Poverty
Now let’s address the elephant of the room. Be it any situation women are the worst sufferers. Wars, pandemics, political disturbances have always bought the worst for women. During the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, more women died due to obstetric complications than the virus itself.
Women are also the first to lose employment amidst any crisis keeping in mind the gender wage gap affects their ability to spend severely decreases. At times it is a tough choice between sanitary products or food. This forces the menstruators to use unhygienic things like old cloth, rags, husk or ash to manage their flow.
Under several government schemes like the Swachh Bharat Mission or the UDAAN scheme run by the Delhi government provided young girls with a free monthly supply of sanitary napkins in government schools. For many, it was their only source of getting a menstrual hygiene product. Since the schools being closed, discontinuing the supply in addition to the loss of employment of several caregivers makes sanitary napkins a luxury for most.
Just Not a Third World Problem
It is a common misconception that like any other issue Period poverty is only faced in underdeveloped countries. However, the numbers are equally bad for developed countries like the US and UK as well.
With the ongoing pandemic, workers face furlough and redundancies in the UK women have to resort to alternate methods like tea bags, pillow cases or even newspapers to control their flow.
A UK charity Bloody Good Period said while it usually distributes 5,000 packs a month, it has handed out 23,000 packs in the past three months of lockdown. The situation is no different in the United States as well.
The current global situation only adds to the fact that period poverty is not a third world problem rather a global crisis.
What Can We Do?
Educate our men about menstruation
Sex education is even a more tabooed subject that menstruation in our society. Currently, in India the sex education courses do include modules on menstruation but boys are excluded from the sessions. It is unfortunate yet the reality that we live in a highly patriarchal society where some of our menstruators do not have the financial liberty to even buy sanitary napkins for themselves. A male member of the family is usually responsible for all the purchases and period products would not occur as an important expenditure unless they are sensitized about the issue from a young age.
Not only this, educating our men about menstruation would be a step forward to create a safer, impartial and equal society for our women.
Switch to sustainable methods
Disposable sanitary napkins are the commonly used period product in India. But truth be told it is not a very economical or an eco-friendly option. On the contrary sustainable alternatives like cloth pads or menstrual cups are eco friendly as well as reusable. This will save the recurring expenditure on menstrual products.
Governmental and non-governmental interventions
Since the WHO has recognised period poverty as a world health crisis actions are being taken throughout the world to eradicate the problem. But clearly the efforts are not enough. Government initiatives are limited to the distribution of sanitary napkins but fail to address the related issues. However, NGOs seem to have a stronger impact on the issue. Reasons are many including community level engagement by such organisations which governments fail to do.
It is important to construct a movement and prevent the exclusion of vulnerable menstruators. The social stigma around menstruation has to be eradicated to bring out our menstruators from the shame they face. It is high time we realise that bleeding should not be a privilege and every individual has the right to live with dignity. Only persistent dialogue and interventions can bring change to the situation.
-Contributed by Ishani Nangia (One of the Prize Winners of Article Writing Competition 2020 in the 13-24 Years Age Group)
Picture Credits: stylist.co.uk