Menstrual Hygiene Day : in India, taboo surrounding menstruations consolidates gender inequalities
Illustrator Yona. Instagram : @welcome_univers
Written by Mathilde Vo
Translated by Aurélie Bugnard
« Menstruation is the biggest taboo in my countryZehtabchi, Les règles de notre liberté, 2018.», said Aunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of the low-cost device which allows to make menstrual pads. This impactful assertion is taken from Rayka Zehtabchi’s documentary entitled “Period. End of sentence”, which exposes the Pad Project Initiative developed in Hapur, a city in the State of Uttar Pradesh in India.
The murder of Vritra takes the shape of a woman’s menstrual flow.
It takes to go back to the roots of religious beliefs and myths in order to better understand how menstruations are perceived in India. In Vedic mythology of ancient India, menstruations were associated with the murder of Vritra, who embodies the symbol of drought and hostile powersL. Frédéric, Nouveau dictionnaire de la civilisation indienne, 2018, p. 330-339., by Indra, the king of gods in Vedic mythology. As a result, the Vedas, the body of Vedic texts, states that the guilt of Vritra’s murder takes the shape of a woman’s menstrual flow, which is said to have taken away a share of Indra’s faultS. Garg, T. Anand, “Menstruation related myths in India: strategies for combating it”, J Family Med Prim Care, 2015; 4 (2): 184‐186.. Besides this belief, women also think that blood is due to the fact that gods do not hear women’s prayersR. Zehtabchi, op. cit..
Therefore, periods are seen as an impurity, scaring populations and compelling women to undergo numerous prohibitions, expressing this impurity and maintaining the shame they feel.
Indeed, during their menstruations, all religious activities are forbidden to them, they’re not allowed to enter a temple or to participate to any religious ritual, such as prayersS. Rajagopal, K. Mathur, “‘Breaking the silence around menstruation’: experiences of adolescent girls in an urban setting in India”, Gender & Development, 2017, 25:2, 303-317.. But these prohibitions overcome religious superstitions as women are banned from accessing to the kitchen and they’re not allowed to touch certain types of food, such as achaar (an Indian pickle) because the impurity they give off is said to make food mold. Moreover, fear from the population even leads to the practice of chaupradi, consisting in locking down women during their menstruationsL. Azerma, « Avoir ses règles en Inde : mens(tr)uel », Blog Courrier International, 2017. Disponible sur : … Continue reading
Internalized shame due to the misunderstanding of periods.
These beliefs and practices do have consequences on how women manage their menstrual hygiene. First of all, from the impurity and shame surrounding periods, women and girls tend to internalize these beliefs and will automatically perceive themselves as impure. Indeed, a study conducted in the region of RajasthanRajagopal, K. Mathur, op. cit. shows that 88% of young girls, following an education program or not, consider their menstrual blood as impure. A young girl even reported that when her friend is on her period, she’s scared and embarrassed to see blood on her friend’s clothesIbid.. Apart from these beliefs, this internalized shame can also be attributed to the misunderstanding of periods among girls and women. According to statistics from the UNESCO, in 2018Principes directeurs internationaux sur l’éducation sexuelle : une approche factuelle », aperçu, 2018, UNESCO, p.2., two-thirds of young girls in some regions of the world ignore what is happening when they first have their periods. In India, some girls say that including in their own family they receive no explanation when their first periods appearS. Rajagopal, K. Mathur, op. cit.. This absence of knowledge does not depend on girl’s education as 73.3% of Indian girls (provided with formal education or not) say they have never had information about menstrual cycle at school or within their familyIbid..
On the global level, 1 in 3 women does not have access to restrooms.
There are many interconnexions between lack of knowledge, shame and impurity surrounding periods which result in a poor menstrual hygiene among girls. While 1 in 3 women in the world does not have access to restrooms« L’accès aux toilettes dans le monde », Coalition Eau, 2014. Vidéo available at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThMZb3lPuR8., young girls in India provided with formal education struggle to change their sanitary protections (when they have one) in their school. According to a study conducted by UNICEF and WHO in 2018« Eau potable, assainissement et hygiène en milieu scolaire : Rapport sur la situation de référence au niveau mondial en 2018 », New York : Fonds des Nations Unies pour l’enfance (UNICEF) et … Continue reading, only 66% of the world’s schools were provided with adequate non-mix sanitary facilities in 2016. More than 620 children had access to limited sanitation services at best, and no services at all at worse in their schoolsIbid.. In India, changing sanitary products is sometimes impossible because restrooms are lacking in their homes or schools. Changing sanitary products often happens in secret, with no one being seen. With no sanitary facilities provided, some girls are forced to change their protections outdoors and feel embarrassed as boys sometimes happen to watch them doing soR. Zehtabchi, op. cit.. Even when restrooms are available, a specific trash for sanitary protections is provided. This trash is emptied every month by a woman from a so-called “low caste”, who is hired specifically to do this taskL. Azerma, op. cit.. Provided the negative image of low- social-status-Indians in the society, seeing a low-caste woman taking care of waste related to menstruations can be seen as an accumulation of impurity according to Indian culture
Regarding the question of access to sanitary protections, a study conducted in the State of RajasthanS. Rajagopal, K. Mathur, op. cit. shows that only 36% of the women interviewed say they have everything they need for good menstrual hygiene. Access to adequate sanitary protections is still limited as 60 % of women and girls use pieces of tissue as suchIbid.. This limited access is very often due to the cost of sanitary pads in India, because many of them do not have enough purchasing power to buy themIbid..
School non-attendance among young girls during their menstruations.
As a result, limited access to sanitary products and above all the lack of adequate sanitary facilities often lead to school non-attendance among girls. A study conducted in six schools in Delhi CityA. Vashisht, R. Pathak, R. Agarwalla, BN. Patavegar, M. Panda, “School absenteeism during menstruation amongst adolescent girls in Delhi, India”, J Family Community Med. 2018; 25 (3) … Continue reading showed that only one school was provided with separated restrooms for girls, causing an absence rate of 65% of girls during their menstruations. According to the same study, out of 600 young girls in six different schools, 40 % of them say they’re not going to school during their menstruations. Their absenteeism is due in particular to the lack of privacy to change their protections, to pain related to menstruation but also to the prohibitions that girls undergo during their periods. Regarding girls who are attending school during their menstruations, 65.5% of them say that their periods affect their school daysIbid.. For example, some do not dare to go write on the blackboardIbid..
Despite these difficulties related the lack of awareness about menstruations, some initiatives have been set up to promote a good menstrual hygiene among Indians girls and women. As shown in the documentary Period. End o
f Sentence, thanks to the invention of the low-cost sanitary pads making machine by Aunachalam Muruganantham, the Pad-Project initiativeThe Pad Project. Available at : https://thepadproject.org/. settled six devices since April 2020 in different rural regions of India. Including reusable tissue is being used in order to reduce waste related to sanitary pads. This initiative allows women to make a living out of the production of sanitary pads and for some of them to become financially independent. For example, thanks to this income, some women were able to go back to schoolR. Zehtabchi, op. cit..
There’s also the TruCup initiativeTruCup. Available at : https://www.trucup.co/partners., created by two Indian women, which promotes more sustainable and low-cost sanitary protections through reusable sanitary pads creations workshops in rural communities, distribution of menstrual cups and by raising awareness on menstrual cycle and the importance of good menstrual hygiene. At the governmental level, India adopted national guidelines on menstrual hygiene management in 2015. Despite of this, in 2017, only two-thirds of Indian schools adopted menstrual hygiene awareness measures« Eau potable, assainissement et hygiène en milieu scolaire », op. cit..
These initiatives represent only a part of the actions carried out by NGOs to promote better menstrual hygiene and break the taboo surrounding periods in India. This is, of course, a long-term work since it takes to go far beyond education about the menstrual cycle. A real work to change the mindset on gender equality must be implemented though the education of men and women in order to reach a more egalitarian and tolerant society in India, especially regarding the topic of menstruation.
Pour citer cette publication : Mathilde Vo, “Journée mondiale de l’hygiène menstruelle : en Inde, le tabou des règles renforce les inégalités hommes-femmes”, 25.05.2020, Institut du Genre en Géopolitique.
|↑1||Zehtabchi, Les règles de notre liberté, 2018.|
|↑2||L. Frédéric, Nouveau dictionnaire de la civilisation indienne, 2018, p. 330-339.|
|↑3||S. Garg, T. Anand, “Menstruation related myths in India: strategies for combating it”, J Family Med Prim Care, 2015; 4 (2): 184‐186.|
|↑4, ↑15, ↑24||R. Zehtabchi, op. cit.|
|↑5||S. Rajagopal, K. Mathur, “‘Breaking the silence around menstruation’: experiences of adolescent girls in an urban setting in India”, Gender & Development, 2017, 25:2, 303-317.|
|↑6||L. Azerma, « Avoir ses règles en Inde : mens(tr)uel », Blog Courrier International, 2017. Disponible sur : https://blog.courrierinternational.com/ma-decouverte-de-l-inde/2017/07/24/avoir-ses-regles-en-inde-un-tabou-menstruel/.|
|↑7||Rajagopal, K. Mathur, op. cit.|
|↑8, ↑11, ↑14, ↑18, ↑19, ↑21, ↑22||Ibid.|
|↑9||Principes directeurs internationaux sur l’éducation sexuelle : une approche factuelle », aperçu, 2018, UNESCO, p.2.|
|↑10, ↑17||S. Rajagopal, K. Mathur, op. cit.|
|↑12||« L’accès aux toilettes dans le monde », Coalition Eau, 2014. Vidéo available at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThMZb3lPuR8.|
|↑13||« Eau potable, assainissement et hygiène en milieu scolaire : Rapport sur la situation de référence au niveau mondial en 2018 », New York : Fonds des Nations Unies pour l’enfance (UNICEF) et Organisation mondiale de la Santé, 2018, p. 8.|
|↑16||L. Azerma, op. cit.|
|↑20||A. Vashisht, R. Pathak, R. Agarwalla, BN. Patavegar, M. Panda, “School absenteeism during menstruation amongst adolescent girls in Delhi, India”, J Family Community Med. 2018; 25 (3) :163‐168.|
|↑23||The Pad Project. Available at : https://thepadproject.org/.|
|↑25||TruCup. Available at : https://www.trucup.co/partners.|
|↑26||« Eau potable, assainissement et hygiène en milieu scolaire », op. cit.|