Fight to demystify menstruation is on in rural India, where the taboo continues to costs lives

While people in urban cities are more open to talking about it, the veil is still very much present in rural India.

Aunt flow... bleeding red... that time of the month... going with the flow... crimson flow... shark week.

The idea of menstruation is still a source of shame and embarrassment for many women in India. In certain castes, women are restricted when they are menstruating — not being able to enter kitchens or holy places. In other instances, they are banished to huts far away from the rest of the family for being "impure", without access to facilities like toilets for basic hygiene or kitchens to cook food. Many girls drop out of school because their schools do not have the proper infrastructure for them to change their pads.

While reaching puberty is celebrated in many communities, the actual experience is looked down upon, disgusting even. While the idea of fertility in women is praised highly, the necessary biological process of menstruation which aids in it isn't accepted or discussed with the same fervor.

A study conducted by an international team including researchers from the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) and UNICEF-India in 2015 with adolescent girls, and the results were truly alarming.

They found that a lack of education, access to water, hygienic absorbents like commercial pads, tampons, etc. meant that girls in rural areas go through their periods with an immense amount of shame and embarrassment.  The study also found that half of the girls surveyed had no idea what menstruation was before it happened to them. Mothers or other women in the family do no talk about this to younger girls. This often leads to them being caught unawares and sacred when the time does come.

Menstruation is a taboo to talk about in India and while there is a change visible, it is occurring mostly in urban areas. Movies like Padman are helping spread awareness, but there is still a need to break that barrier.

The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare launched a programme called the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram on in January 2014 to spread awareness and educate girls on menstruation. (One line on how this is doing)

Akshay Kumar in the poster of Padman. Twitter@AkshayKumar

Akshay Kumar in the poster of Padman. Image credit: Twitter

In another survey undertaken by the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4), it was found that women with education up till 12 years were more likely to use pads, made either locally, otherwise or tampons. The use of menstrual cups or tampons were hardly mentioned by the girls.

The researchers believed that the use of items that have to be inserted into the vagina wasn't in use due to the widely held misconception that it might tear the hymen, leading to the loss of virginity. While this is a myth, it is still held true in many parts of India — and not just rural India.

Representational image. Credit: Pixabay

Using cloth is unhygienic because of the limited access to water and drying places. Girls told the researchers that they were either dried under other clothes or kept in dark cupboards since displaying this particular piece of cloth in public is not appropriate. The recommended way of drying a menstrual cloth is under direct sunlight so any bacteria that are on it are killed.

Women can die from infections from using a dirty menstrual cloth. However, many other women die because they are closed off in 'period huts'. For instance, in 2018, a girl in Tamil Nadu died when she was living in such a hut just as Cyclone Gaja hit. More recently, a woman and her two sons died in Nepal because they suffocated from poor ventilation in just such a hut.

While people in urban cities are more open to talking about it, the veil is still very much present in rural India. The barrier of shame and stigma during those few days is of impenetrable silence, and change seems to be happening, ever so slowly.

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