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Why do we never use the term menstruation while referring to a menstruating woman? Euphemism has been there to serve the purpose since time immemorial. Some of them are kept in isolation, others are not allowed to enter the temple room, some of them are even kept in cowsheds with no sanitation facilities or pads, they use cloth and rags and that’s how they are made to deal with their periods. This article highlights all such issues that are incidental to menstruation and have accompanied the women for a long time. The impact of these menstrual taboos is directly linked to the growth and development of women and they severely hinder the same. Treating menstruating women as impure, polluted and untouchable lowers their quality of life, their dignity as well as confidence. And therefore, stringent measures are to be taken in order to provide women with a better and hygienic environment to improve their menstrual health, which will ultimately make them healthier, more confident and will encourage to participate more in the development in the society, thereby leading to the growth of the nation as a whole. ||Read Menses: Better Health, Better Status by Ameya Nath.
Introduction – Menses: Better Health, Better Status
Half the population of India comprises of girls and women, yet there are diverse categories of gender disparities that exist in the country. Gender inequality is still a condemnatory issue that sows the seed for a plethora of other problems that prevail in the country.
When we talk about the status of women in a country, we are not only trying to address issues at the level or degree of employment or politics but also the incongruity that females go through with regard to their health and basic sanitation facilities.
On observing the development cycle of children, the reports reveal a trend that both girls and boys are largely equal to each other till the arrival of adolescence, however, after this period, the girls start facing greater limitations and curtailment.
In India, there are approximately 355 million menstruating girls and women, but a large segment of these women and girls face remarkable limitations with respect to comfortable and dignified menstrual hygiene. A study suggests that around 71% of girls have absolutely no knowledge of menstruation during Menarche. Anxiety, shame, restlessness and shock are some of the few feelings they experience during Menarche. 70% of females in India have accepted that they do not have sufficient income and hence, they are unable to purchase sanitary pads. Above poverty and lack of education, religion also plays a vital role in spreading myths about menstruation, and how it must not be respected and taken care of. Some religions even treat it as demonic.
Religion and Menstruation
Religion is one of the major factors due to which, something as natural as menstruation, is stigmatised in society. It is due to the traditional belief system of the people that menstruating women are impure, and the lack of willingness to discuss periods.
In Judaism, Halakha (the Jewish Code of law) regulates and controls every aspect of human life, including their sexual life. It bars and disallows any form of association between males and females, while the female is menstruating. In Christianity, menstrual myths and taboo are one of the most vital reasons why the females were not given positions of authority in the Church. Similarly, the Quran, under 2:222 says, “They ask you about menstruation. Say, ‘It is an impurity, so keep away from women during it and do not approach them until they are cleansed; when they are cleansed you may approach them as God has ordained…” therefore, it is evident that Islam disallows contact during menstruation, too. In Hindu mythology, it is considered to be ‘Rajaswala Dosh’. The story behind it being that Lord Indra killed a brahman named Vishwaroopacharya, and after killing him he got ‘Brahmahatya dosh’. He was, later on, able to get away with the guilt by sharing it amongst the water, land, tree and women. And since that day the females started menstruating. The reason why menstruating females are treated in an undignified manner is because of these myths and dogmas that undermine the importance of menstrual hygiene.
Menstruation and Education
A large proportion of the 355 million menstruating females have nil to little, crooked access to menstrual and puberty education, wherein they can be taught about the process as to how to deal with it in a way that protects their health and maintains appropriate hygiene level. A 2014 report by the NGO Dasra titled Spot On! found that nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to lack of proper menstrual hygiene management facilities, which include the availability of sanitary napkins and awareness of menstruation. Almost 40% of government schools do not have a properly functioning toilet. It’s these small stages of development and empowerment that lay the foundation for greater ones.
The Gender Parity Index (GPI) is the ratio of the number of female students enrolled at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education to the corresponding number of male student in each level. It pictures and provides a clear position of gender equality in education. From 2005-06 to 2014-15, there has been an admirable change in the gender parity conditions in education. With improving facilities in schools, the drop out came down from 5.62% to 4.34%.
Data represents a picture wherein the per cent of out of school girls and boys belonging to the age group of 6-10 of the year was 6.87% 5.51%, respectively. And for the girls and boys belonging to the age group of 11-13 (that is adolescence), the out of school disparity was as high as 10.03% in girls and just 6.46% in boys.
Therefore, poor menstrual awareness has only proved to be a barrier not only for social activities but also for education, which is a basic right of these menstruating girls, as enshrined in the Constitution of India.
Sanitary Pads, Still Not In Vogue
A large number of some 88% of females do not use sanitary pads or napkins. They rely on rags, cloth, hay, ash or sand. The reason why this happens are myths as well as the market. The product market analysis, for example, reflects that these important products are unaffordable and too expensive for females who belong to a family with low income.
According to the report of the National Family Health Survey, conducted for the year 2015-16, 62% of females belonging to the age group 15-24 years, still use cloth and rags. In Bihar, a towering 82% of females use homemade cloth and rags, followed by Uttar Pradesh at 81%. The report also shows that only 48% of rural females use locally made napkins or pads, and the rest of them use absolutely no hygienic method for protection and cleanliness during their menstruation.
Women, usually the ones using cloth, have huge chances of suffering from various Urinary Tract Diseases, wherein the bacteria enters the Bladder through Urethra and cause immense pain the in the pelvic and lower abdomen area. It also causes women to urinate more and blood can come along with urine, too. Therefore, it is grossly unhealthy to use rags and cloth during menstruation.
There is a close nexus between menstrual hygiene and education and wealth. Women belonging higher income or wealthy families have almost more than four times chances to use hygienic methods during periods, where females who have completed at least 12 years of schooling have more than four times chances to opt for hygienic menstruation. These numbers a startling.
The issue is also that even though the pads are provided to these females at low prices, these distributions are irregular and uneven, and most of these women and girls are too shy to ask for pads during their periods. Another reason is that periods are considered to be an omen or sign of evil, due to which the women themselves refrain from wearing them, even though they can afford them.
Family members and society use various kinds of restrictive measures against females, while they are on their menstruation. For example, they are not allowed to sleep on their regular beds, prohibited from entering the kitchen or from going to school, restrictions on human contacts and several other factors. Religious restrictions are the most widespread and happen in almost every household, wherein the females cannot enter the temple room during menstruation they are not allowed to pray. Even though the apex court has ruled that any restriction that disallows a woman from entering the temple based on her menstrual cycle must not be allowed as this results in depriving women of equal rights and treating them as children of lesser Gods, a large number of curtailments during menstruation still prevail in the country with no check on them. These restrictions and limitations on their mobility and daily functioning isolate them and result in lowering their confidence and dignity.
Therefore, what we observe is that there is a direct linkage between empowerment and dignified menstruation. And till we are not ready to provide these girls with a proper hygienic environment for menstruating and support them during their menstruation, the women cannot be empowered and they can never stand on equal footings with men.
Economic Impact of Unhealthy/Undignified Menstruation
A very less talked about topic is the absenteeism from work and dropping out of the labour market. Although there has been no concrete data in this regard, still there is a close connection and nexus between the female labour force and dignified menstruation. Women missing out of work due to their menstruation will not only affect their families with lesser income and growth leading to poverty but will also lower the confidence of these women making them less willing to work at all, hence, lowering the number of the female workforce in the country. Therefore, menstrual taboo does not only affects individual lives but it affects the growth and development of a country, as a whole.
Constitutional Principles and Menstruation
Taking into account the famous case of Indian Young Lawyers’ Association versus The State of Kerala (Sabarimala Temple Case), in which the court rule against the prohibition of menstruating women from entering the shrine.
The temple was devoted to Lord Ayyappa. It was believed that his powers were derived from his asceticism and celibacy. And although, there were many other temples of Lord Ayyappa, the one in Sabarimala depicts him as a Naishtik Brahmacharya, which meant that these powers were derived specifically from the abstention from any kind of sexual activities. It, therefore, prohibited women between 10-50 years of age (menstruating age) from entering the temple, as they will pollute the pure and sacred depiction of Lord Ayyappa. The party supporting the prohibition even contended that it is just this particular temple of Ayyappa where the women are not allowed to enter and that they are free to visit any other temple of Ayyappa, where is not in the form of a Naishtika Brahmacharya.
Hon’ble Justice D Y Chandrachud called this prohibition a form of untouchability that isolates the women of menstruating age from the rest of the society. He said, “Article 17 certainly applies to untouchability practices in relation to lower castes, but it will also apply to the systemic humiliation, exclusion and subjugation faced by women. Prejudice against women based on the notions of impurity and pollution associated with menstruation is a symbol of exclusion. The social exclusion based on menstrual status is a form of untouchability which is an anathema of constitutional values.” And therefore, the prohibition of women based on their menstrual status was held not to be an essential religious practice. It was also held that the practice of prohibition based on the menstrual status is also violative of Article 14 (Right to Equality) and Article 25 (Right to Worship) of the Indian Constitution.
Therefore, when it comes to choosing between constitutional morality and public morality, more weight will always be given to constitutional morality backed by basic constitutional principles of equality and non-discrimination.
However, the stand that the judges took in this case regarding the prohibition of women’s entry into the shrine was commendable and praiseworthy for it uplifts the dignity and confidence of millions of menstruating women that go through all sorts of restrictions during their periods. This judgment is not only a ray of hope for the women willing to enter the shrine but for every female who menstruates and was made to ashamed of it.
- Awareness Programmes and Education:
A major proportion of girls (nearly 71%) have their first menstrual experience associated or linked with fear, anxiety or shame. They even think of it as a disease, and sometimes as even blood cancer. 
Therefore, there is a pressing need for proper menstrual education and awareness through awareness programmes and through school teaching students about their body and the changes it goes through on the onset of puberty. They must also teach them ways as to how to correctly and efficiently deal with these changes and manage them without freaking out and fearing it.
Most females do not have access to education or schools, and the ones that do have it are not consistently taught about menstruation, because of it not being made mandatory by the government. Also, the teachers find the topic of menstruation embarrassing and refrain from talking about it. Therefore, along with these awareness programmes and teaching methods, the teachers must be trained to make them adequately confident when they talk about menstruation.
Pads that are produced by the premium commercial producers are almost 1.5 times costlier than the one produced by low-cost producers. Also, the pads belonging to cheap commercial brands are often sold in packs of 15-20 and are only available in hypermarkets impeding the females from low-income families from buying them.
The demand for cheaper cloth pads is very low due to extremely low awareness about the product and how it is used. Various organisations like EcoFemme in Tamil Nadu produce cheap pads by employing local women for the same, thereby creating a livelihood for women simultaneously. They even provide education to females in schools and distribute pads to them free of cost. However, these organisations work at a very low scale and do not cover women from all over the country.
There are approximately 636 million households in India and approximately 72% rural people still go behind the bushes or in the fields to defecate. Therefore, awareness with regards to building toilets in households and the kind of problems that are attracted due to lack of them is the need of the hour. A change in the behavioural pattern of the community members is also required so that they realise the importance of having toilets.
In-school access to toilets: Almost 40% of government schools, in 2012, did not have a separate toilet for girls. Various reports also indicate that girls do not change their pads during the long hours of school and had there been toilet facilities, they would have gone to school.
At home access to toilets: Almost 53% of households do not have toilets, forcing females to defecate in the open. Women also report that they get assaulted and even raped on their way to fields and other places in order to relieve themselves.
The Indian government is now improving hygienic menstrual infrastructure as an important part of the National Sanitation Program. Menstrual education and need for separate toilets for females were enshrined in the 2015 Menstrual Hygiene Guidelines.
Firstly, programmes that educate mothers on menstruation are rare. However, they will prove to be much accommodating in the long run as the mothers will themselves be educated enough about the issue to guide their daughters properly and providing them with a hygienic environment to deal with menstruation. Secondly, low-cost pads have a very restricted and limited producing capacity. So an intervention based on the market through technological transformations can help increase the capacity and capability of these low-cost machines. Thirdly, there must be a survey and regular checks on the implementation of the policies made by the government to improve menstrual health and hygiene. And lastly, the imposition of sanctions against households that do not have toilet facilities and impose restrictions on the females of the house during their menstruation.
Therefore, the upliftment of women is deeply and directly affected by the kind of provisions that are made for their hygienic menstruation. If not the only one, it is one of the major factors that would lead to the growth and development of women by helping them live a dignified life, wherein they feel confident. This, in turn, would help the nation grow as a whole. So, better menstrual management and hygiene is a key factor for uplifting the status of women in society, seeking more participation from them, ultimately helping the nation to thrive towards success.
By – Ameya Nath,
This Essay was shortlisted in the Third Edition of the National Essay Writing Competition on Nation and Nationalism 2019
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