14-year-old Asha (name changed) loves to go about her life with a smile on her face. She enjoys her school lessons, loves to sing and dance and chat with friends, and also finds time to help her mother with her domestic and kitchen chores. A normal bubbly teenager, one would say! But for four to five days every month, this Class IX student becomes different. She skips school, stays put in her tiny room, and avoids being face-to-face with her older brother and father. Her mother has told her to be extremely careful during this time. Or else, she would have to face what her friend had to endure two years ago.
Asha’s friend, 12 years old at the time, had just started having her periods, but her cycles had yet to become regular. Her mother, grandmother, and friendly neighborhood aunts decided something was grievously wrong with her. Perhaps, it was a family curse! Or, had she committed a serious crime in her previous life? Maybe, she was an evil spirit. How would she get married and bear a child? The community castigated her, her family abandoned her and the 12-year-old girl was sent away. Nobody knew where! Humiliated and isolated, a few months later, the family too had to leave the city.
Asha hasn’t heard from her friend since! This happened in the heart of a metropolitan city in the year 2020. Imagine what millions of girls in smaller towns and villages in hinterland India must be going through during their ‘period of shame’!
Menstruation is a necessary biological function experienced by around half of the world’s population – women and girls all over the world understand what it is like to get their first periods and most of them face the same symptoms. Yet, menstruation is a ‘dirty’ word all around. Down the generations and over the years, people, more so women, have been uncomfortable talking about it, preferring to whisper about it in hushed tones or talk behind closed doors.
The taboo surrounding menstruation exists in many parts of the world, especially among marginalized and deprived communities that do not have access to education and health infrastructure. It is the lack of knowledge and awareness that fuels myths that ostracize and humiliate women during their monthly cycles. Unaware of the importance of menstrual hygiene, they become vulnerable to serious infections and other related complications later in life.
CRY – Child Rights and You conducted a primary study to assess the level of knowledge, attitude, and practice (KAP) and taboos around menstrual health and hygiene management in some of its intervention areas. The study was spread across eight states – two states each from the four intervention regions of CRY – i.e., east, north, south, and west. The sample size was small, but the results reflect a large malignancy bound to create impediments in developmental work.
MATTER OF ‘SHAME’
The findings reveal the real ‘pain’ point: the attitude of the girls (and their mothers) towards menstruation and the way they view it – there is ignorance, false perceptions, unsafe practices regarding menstruation, and the reluctance of the mother to educate her child.
- Around 89.7 percent of the respondents in our intervention areas of Assam and West Bengal said their most credible source of information about menstruation was their mothers. Whatever their mothers told them, they believed and followed, without questions. Case in point: The majority of the respondents’ mothers (61.3 percent), across the four regions, are either illiterate or with basic reading and writing skills, which brings into doubt their own knowledge and awareness levels.
- One of the restrictions most commonly imposed upon girls during periods is a bar on worshipping/entering a place of worship. Around 42.2 percent of girls in West Bengal and Assam said they could not participate in worship/prayers. Around 23.2 percent said they have been told not to go to school during this time and 20.6 percent said eating or touching pickles is a strict no-no.
- In what can be construed as a deep-rooted stigma, a sizable count of 33.3 percent of girls said they are embarrassed and hesitant to talk openly about periods, in front of family members. Around 51.1 percent said they are comfortable talking about it only with their mothers. Queried about their hesitancy and discomfort, 35.1 said it’s a matter of shame, and 32 percent said it is best kept a secret.
- Around 31.1 percent of girls said they miss school for at least a day and around 13.9 percent said they skip school for 2 days. Fear of stained clothes (24.2 percent) is a big reason. Around 20.3 percent said the discomfort and the pain make them stay confined.
- On the use of sanitary pads, 46.1 percent of the girls said they don’t use sanitary pads because these are too costly – a possible reflection of the economic condition of the families of the respondents.
IGNORE THE ‘STAINS’
Years ago, there used to be a commercial running on TV that showed a girl returning from school with a stain on her skirt and humiliation writ large on her face. The advertisement had created quite a buzz, even at the time. More recently, the film Pad Man broached this issue, highlighting the mission of social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham (from Coimbatore), who has taken up the crusade for menstrual hygiene and use of sanitary pads and spoken out against the mindless stigma that propels unhygienic practices.
Work on generating awareness about periods and hygiene began years ago, be it through government initiatives, the work of NGOs, or campaigns on TV and radio. And the results are now showing on the ground. More than 50 percent of the respondents of the CRY study, from the eastern states, say their knowledge about menstrual hygiene has increased after watching TV and videos on YouTube.
The need of the hour is detailed frank conversations around this taboo topic. Girls should know what a period is and how the cycle works, to feel normal and secure in their bodies. Creating safe spaces to have conversations and exchange knowledge is crucial to empower, building self-esteem, and ending period stigma.
At CRY, the focus is on generating awareness about menstruation, the use and disposal of sanitary pads, and tips on a healthy diet, all through educational programs. Toilets have to be kept clean and hygienic, especially the community set-ups in urban slums. Families, schools, and frontline health workers have to be counseled and trained to encourage impactful conversations, with the help of the audio-visual medium. Sex education in schools can be a big boost.
The more we talk, the more people will know. And, the more people know, they will be in a better position to spread the word. Increased knowledge about menstruation right from childhood, both for young girls and their families, may help change mindsets. And hopefully, one day, the stigma around this most natural process will banish forever – no girl will have to confine herself at home for five days, eat less, and ever come home crying because of a red blot on her white skirt.
Writer Trina Chakrabarti is the Regional Director (East) of Child Rights and You (CRY). A Chevening Scholar from the University of Essex, Trina joined CRY in 2002 as a part of the Development Support team and went on to lead Volunteer Action before taking on the Director role for the East. Trina believes that children can change the world and hopes to make a difference in children’s lives through her work with CRY.