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Back then science books didn’t have a chapter on human anatomy; students were not taught that woman’s body is different from a man’s in some respects and that it’s linked to their corresponding role in the process of reproduction. So, girls like me grew up with a double whammy: lack of knowledge about our own bodies and the pressure of social prejudices against girls and stigma that was linked to a normal biological process like puberty and especially, menstruation.

Most of my peers have a terrible memory of their first period, menarche. For example, on that day, I, a student of the sixth standard, was told that the stain on my trouser meant that I was a grown-up; the stain was my shame about which nobody should know. Perplexed and shocked as I stood to wonder why I was being made to feel sorry for being a girl.

That day, I cried bitterly, quietly; and pangs of guilt haunted me for next five days. I avoided my classmates and friends fearing that I may have committed a sin or an immoral act to deserve the curse of bleeding. It became the last of my childhood as I was forbidden from moving out and playing with friends, especially boys.

The folded cloth that was used as a sanitary towel to absorb the menstrual flow made walking painful and after a few hours of use, the skin coming in contact with the ‘pad’ would hurt me. The pain was because of the rashes and small cuts caused by the dried and caked edges of the ‘pad.’ My abdomen will churn in pain; I would feel uneasy for the first two days but complaining was not an option. Overall, those five days would take all joy out of my life as besides discomfort, I was always afraid to let my secret shame out.

Decades later, determined to change the world, I looked forward to supervising my daughter’s menarche. Unlike my generation, she had learnt about female anatomy and periods in her class where boys and girls studied together. I too had discussed it and demonstrated the use of sanitary napkin to her. On the day of her first period, we tried to pamper her. We took her out for dinner and celebrated her puberty although it was nowhere close to the grand feasting held by many south Indian communities on such occasion. She would be using an ultra-thin and soft sanitary pad; even that was difficult for her to handle.

It gave closure to my lingering sense of humiliation the society had inflicted on me as a young girl; I thought the world had finally changed.

How wrong I was! I now realize that despite the all-round progress in India only 20 percent of its women enjoy the luxury of safe and hygienic products like pads, tampons, menstrual cups etc. to take care of the flow of unwanted body fluid and maybe also emotional support needed for the first time. The rest continue to use rags, paper, dried leaves, ash and even bark of trees during periods and are treated as untouchables - forbidden from offering prayers, entering the kitchen, touching processed foods like pickles and in some cases dumped in an outhouse during periods.

The offices and workplaces across India have no dispensers for sanitary napkins and talking about it is still a taboo for the majority of people, policymakers, professionals etc.

Like the case of open defecation, there is a conspiracy of silence on menstruation, the reason being since both impact the dignity and health of women in a major way and as women are not empowered and have low self-esteem, they don’t speak about it. So, conveniently, it becomes nobody’s concern.

As they say, Nature is inclined towards female gender; the girls are born with more developed health parameters and strengths than males. For example, as a rule, a girl child would learn to speak and walk much earlier than a boy. However, the scales tilt against her as and when she enters puberty. In our homes, discerning and experienced mothers and grandmothers still make sure that girls are not fed ‘healthy’ diet, particularly milk and eggs, to delay their puberty (read, start menstruating). Such discrimination and restriction result in the majority of Indian women becoming malnourished with docile attitudes and low self-esteem.

In many Hindu communities like in Nepal, menstruating women are often banished to a specially built hut called Chaupad, denied proper food and use of clean water etc. She often sleeps on the bare floor in the Himalayan cold. A woman’s death due to snake bite inside a Chaupad has recently brought to fore a UN-aided campaign to end the culture of Chaupads. The first nation people in Australia and America also believed women became impure and therefore need to be isolated during their monthly period. About 49,000 homeless women in Australia can’t even buy a sanitary pad.

However, with the advent of social media, the world is turning into a global village and with women from across continents trying to break the silence on this, change is visible. Social media is being used by the empowered women to give shock treatment to the societies to make them see menstruation as a normal biological process and the need for creating its safe management. Campaigns like #Ibleed where women showing their stained pants and sanitary pads on social media platforms try to create awareness have helped break the silence on the taboo subject.

Recently an American woman of Indian origin Kiran Gandhi ran the London marathon without wearing a protection against menstrual bleeding. A musician, Gandhi said the stain on her pants should remind the world that there are lakhs of poor women who don’t have access to products like sanitary pads etc. for maintaining hygiene during those five days.

The affordability of sanitary napkins is still limited. While in developing countries like India, where the sizeable population of poor women have no means to buy these napkins, the government is only paying a lip service. The Narendra Modi government’s decision to impose 12 percent tax on sanitary napkins had made this product beyond the reach of many. Despite protests by the activists, the government is not relenting. With more women being laid off and poverty levels increasing, buying a sanitary napkin becomes the last of the priorities of a family in rural India or in the urban slums. It’s in this scenario that a Bollywood film, like Akshay Kumar’s Padman based on the true story of a social entrepreneur Arunachalam Murugunantham, becomes a game changer. Murugunantham’s passion to provide his wife with a cheap and yet safe sanitary napkin made him a social industrial. India’s Toilet man Dr Bindeshwar Pathak’s Sulabh international NGO is also imparting training to schoolchildren in making cheap sanitary napkins.

UNICEF has conducted a study on menstruating women in rural Bengal and found that majority of them not using hygienic products suffer from Bacterial Vaginosis and other reproductive tract infections. The high dropout rate from the school of adolescent girls is also linked to lack of facilities for menstruating girls. The unhygienic products used by many and the need to hide the acute cramps and pain have often diagnosed as the causes of fibroid uterine and other serious diseases among women at a later stage.   

However, of late a slow but steady change is raising its head due to all these efforts on social media. Women have realised that it’s their battle and therefore they have to lead the change. Now, many girls in urban India are motivated to openly ask a shopkeeper for sanitary pads. They do not speak about it in whispers and also insist that there is no need for him to wrap it in a newspaper. “It’s no shame; we are not asking for drugs,” says one advertisement meant to raise social awareness.

Now, the focus has shifted to governments and employers that need to treat a woman properly and make policies on menstruation. A Congress member of parliament from Arunachal Pradesh Ninong Ering has recently proposed a bill in the Lok Sabha to seek a two-day leave provision for all the women employed in the private and public sector during their periods. Countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia already have some form of menstrual leave. Italy, which has the lowest ratio of women workforce in Europe – 61% – is also mulling about a similar leave provision to attract women into jobs.

The women activists are however divided over the menstruating leave concept as they fear that it would lead to more bias against hiring women in a country which has one of the lowest - 28 percent - ratios of female works force as against 71 percent in Europe. Two online companies have already announced such a leave policy; the narrative on bleeding has begun to change. However, given the stark reality that a virtual India is different from poverty-trapped rural India and in the latter, women are yet not ready to defy tradition and social hierarchy, it’s still a long haul for working on gender parity.

(Published on 26th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 09)