Pads and Prejudice

Pads and Prejudice

I was sitting in my class when all of a sudden, I felt like I had peed in my pants. I freaked out but tried not to show how spooked I was, as I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. Luckily, my mother had taught me all about periods and I was all prepared for the actual event to occur, just not in the middle of my classroom with a male teacher and surrounded by eighth grade boys.

Menarche, the onset of menstruation for young girls signals their journey towards motherhood. But is this phenomenon exalted? Many girls, even today, are incognizant of periods until the day they start bleeding. Menstruation is a normal biological process that half the people of the world experience for a consequential part of their lives. Yes, our vaginas bleed for nearly a week every month. On an average, women and girls spend 3,000 days during their lifetimes menstruating. Yet menstruation is still enswathed in fibs, misapprehensions and blots.

“Menstrual Hygiene Day, observed on May 28 each year, aims to break taboos and raise awareness about the importance of menstrual hygiene management worldwide. It was initiated by the Germany-based NGO, WASH United in 2014.”

I know what you’re thinking – ‘there’s a day for THAT?’

Disquietude and derogation – this is how most women around the globe remember the onset of their menstrual cycle, and it changes their world entirely. The greatest irony is that menstruation is absolutely paramount for survival and perpetuation of humankind, but most societies don’t want to deal with the fact that women bleed every month.

It wasn’t until the mid-18th century that menstruation was known to be related to ovulation. Scientific experiments to test the factor of “impurity” in menstrual blood were not undertaken until 1920s. It is then understandable that some of the myths our ancestors lived by came to be because of the lack of information regarding what exactly was going on inside our bodies.

An infographic showing the myths associated with periods

‘Don’t touch pickles during your cycle; they’ll go putrid.’ ‘Don’t cook.’ ‘Don’t enter the temple.’ ‘Flowers will die at your touch.’ ‘Sleep on the floor and use a rug given to you especially for these days.’ ‘If a snake touches your used sanitary pad, you’ll never get pregnant.’ ‘You are filthy and impure.’ ‘If you don’t get your period, you’ll die.’ These are some of the delusions not unknown to us. Despite having known that menstrual fluid is nothing but a innocuous mixture of blood, tissues and small amounts of hormones for about a century now, the culture of silence around the subject keeps menstrual myths unquestioned and inviolable.

No matter where a girl grows up in the world, there’s a very good chance that she will be inundated with endless illusions and misconceptions about menstruation, as no bodily function is more universally misrepresented and ubiquitously tabooed.

During menstruation, women in Afghanistan avoid washing their vaginas because they are told it can lead to infertility. Compounding the issue is the lack of access to clean pads. A single menstrual pad costs $4 USD in Afghanistan. Sixty-two percent of Afghani schoolgirls report using strips of torn clothing, and many hold off on washing them until nightfall to keep it a secret.

School girls in Bolivia can often be found carrying around used menstrual pads in their backpacks all day because they are told that menstrual blood is so dangerous it can cause diseases like cancer if it’s mixed in with other trash.

A long-standing tradition in Japan dictates that women cannot be sushi chefs because their sense of taste is thrown off by menstruation. “To be a professional means to have a steady taste in your food, but because of the menstrual cycle women have an imbalance in their taste, and that’s why women can’t be sushi chefs,” Yoshikazu Ono, the son of the famed Jiro Ono  told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

“I did not see my own womanhood as something positive or to be celebrated, but as a curse that I had to constantly make room for and muddle through. Like the scar on my arm, my reproductive system was a liability. I always wondered what was wrong with me. Why did I have such trouble dealing with one of the most basic and common functions Mother Nature handed all women? I heard my mother’s voice echo in my head: ‘Because I had it, and your grandmother had it. It’s just what happens.'”—author and chef Padma Lakshmi, India.

Many such myths are common in India

A study published by A.C. Nielsen and UNICEF in 2016 found that only 28 percent of the girls were currently using sanitary pads in the eastern Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Many women and girls in these states and in other parts of India use alternatives such as unsanitized cloths or rugs and ashes. The same study reveals that 70 percent of Indian girls feel completely unprepared for their first menstrual experience because of the stigma around discussing menstruation.

Concentrating on lessons when you are desperate for the bathroom is hard on anyone. It’s nearly impossible for a girl who is menstruating and has nowhere to change or dispose of her pad. Girls grow tired of dealing with it. According to one of the surveys, 23 percent of Indian school-age girls dropped out of school when they reached puberty.

“The restrictions are so many that girls start slipping into depression,” says Dr. Ashvini Gawande, a gynaecologist working in Maharashtra. “They’re made to sit in a corner and they start fearing interaction with the opposite gender. Many of them believe that if they come in touch with boys after they start menstruating or after their breasts develop, they’ll get pregnant.”

However regardless of such stigmas, we have people who have espoused and are still espousing to educate the masses on the notability of menstruation.

From using ashes to dirty clothes, women in rural India put their health at immense risk during menstruation. A major revolution has been brought about to address this concern by Swati Bedeker who hails from Vadodara. Swati not only spread awareness about using sanitary pads but also enabled rural women to make a living out of it under her organisation, Vatsalya Foundation. Swati believes in one thing, “If boys are not made to feel ashamed when their beard and moustache start growing in their adolescent years, why should girls be made to feel ashamed of themselves when they menstruate?”

Based in the Gujarat village of Untdi the women are trained to manufacture the menstrual hygiene products, which are high-quality, low-cost sanitary napkins that are 90% biodegradable. An all-women sales team is hired to distribute the pads throughout their communities, creating a self-perpetuating empowerment cycle in which girls and women can take control over their own health and livelihood. The program also provides vital health education in managing menstrual hygiene. This helps to de-stigmatise menstruation, instill in women and girls the importance of self-care, and increases school attendance for girls. “Our mission with this program is to help women and young girls feel safe in their bodies every week of every month, while also providing employment opportunities that will ultimately impact entire communities,” says Megha Desai, President of The Desai Foundation.

Padman is one such movie which took up the issue

Padman, a Bollywood movie based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who gave women in rural areas access to a modest but effective form of hygiene product. He gave the world its very own low-cost sanitary pad making machine in the year 2004.  Muruganantham is a school dropout, with no degree in hand and yet, he has won the National Innovation Foundation’s Grassroots Technological Innovations Award at IIT Madras in 2006 and the Padma Shri in 2016. Today, he runs a company in Coimbatore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and is successfully supplying low-cost sanitary pads in 4,500 villages of India. Not only that, he has also provided his technology for making low cost sanitary pads to 19 other countries.

In India, the hashtag #PadmanChallenge went viral on social media, with business figures and celebrities posting photos of themselves posing with pads. The campaign was supposed to confront the stigma around menstruation. But in reality, hashtags and Bollywood movies belong to the wealthy and educated, and neither will make menstruation easier for the millions of women who live in abject poverty.

“Poor menstrual hygiene management caused by a combination of taboos and stereotypes, a lack of education, and limited access to hygienic products and infrastructure holds back millions of women and girls globally. In India, 50% of all girls have no knowledge about menstruation and how to manage it when they have their first period. We believe that a world where every woman and girl can manage her menstruation hygienically, with confidence and without stigma is possible,” says Nirmala Nair, Managing Director, India, WASH United.

It’s high time the national governments adopt standards for better menstrual hygiene management infrastructure in schools and guarantee the explicit integration of education about menstruation into school curricula. The governments and international development partners should increase funding for the necessary menstrual facilities. Toilet paper is found free of charge in public restrooms for men and women. Similarly, using tampons or pads to absorb blood during a woman’s period serves a function of necessity for women. Yet the reality that women must pay an economic price for their own needs, while toilet paper remains free in public restrooms, suggests an expectation that women should not be able to freely access the materials they need to stay healthy. It turns taking care of a biological need into an economic burden. Every girl, everywhere, must have the knowledge, products and facilities she needs to manage her menstruation hygienically and without stigma.

The image says it all

Menstrual myths have a long history rooted in our lack of understanding of the human body and our habit of deductive reasoning based on symptoms. But our beliefs and practices must change with time and with scientific advancement. It’s also important to know the context in which some practices were suggested once upon a time in order to debunk myths with a logical and nuanced explanation. It is a long road ahead for emancipation of women from the stigma of menstruation but like any other journey, this too needs to begin with the small step of breaking free from the anathema and discomfiture and exhorting others to do the same by using the power of reason.

To all the women out there, is it that time for Satan’s red waterfall of endless torment and doldrums? Isn’t it just supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? The cramping, the bloating, the cravings, and the mood swings? And who doesn’t adore a surprise acne breakout. Isn’t it convenient how those usually pop up right before an exam or a jamboree? What, are you, like, PMS-ing or something? If you are, tell your “monthly gift” that its great to see him. It’s nice of him to remind you that your body is working how it should be. Everything’s in tip-top shape, no reason for any panicked Google searches this month to see if you have cancer. I suppose that’s a blessing in its own, right?

Now sit back with a heating pad and get the ice cream out!

BLEED on without mortification. Happy Menstrual Hygiene Day!

-Bhavya Raj

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