“In seventh grade, I had just gotten my period and the flow was heavy. We were not allowed to go to the bathroom during class unless you were on your period, but that would mean telling the teacher and having everyone else in class know that you had your period. Since we were in the middle of reading, I didn’t want to interrupt. So, I ended up staining my pants and the chair. I was so embarrassed because I couldn’t get the stain off the chair. From then on, it was known as the gross chair and I was often chided for it,” reminisces Lata, now a grown-up.
Women spend an average of 10 years menstruating and we all know that it is a healthy biological process. Then, why the whispers and the embarrassment? The forthcoming release of the film, Pad Man, based on the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of the low-cost sanitary pad-making machine, has turned the spotlight on menstruation and the need to give the right information about menstrual hygiene to girls.
Numbers Tell a Story
According to studies, only 12 per cent of India’s around 350 million menstruating women and girls have access to sanitary napkins. Others use unhygienic alternatives that can endanger their health and expose them to Reproductive Tract Infections (RTIs). Lack of awareness and inadequate menstrual protection also makes adolescent girls miss five days of school in a month.
In our society, girls are not encouraged to openly ask questions about puberty and menstruation, and parents rarely prepare them for such an important milestone in their lives. “All this is because of the culture of silence surrounding menstruation. No girl should feel afraid or confused when she begins her period, and for this she needs the right information and affordable protection. The biggest challenge is to sensitise the men of the family so that sanitary supplies for the women and girls are budgeted for in the home’s monthly expenditure,” says Kala Charlu, founder of MITU Foundation, which promotes menstrual hygiene and provides low cost sanitary napkins to poor girls.
“The taboo regarding menstruation affects women’s health and their human rights. The role of good menstrual hygiene and need to talk about it to build girls’ confidence cannot be over-emphasised,” says Dilip Kumar of voluntary organisation Sukhibhava.
Lack of awareness
The stigma is not just in rural areas but even in some urban and educated households. Some of us might have heard with bewilderment, stories of girls being banished from the home for four days every month during their periods, of having no access to sanitary napkins, not being given nutritious food in those days and being treated like untouchables. Lack of awareness also makes young girls use unhygienic materials such as soiled cloth, sawdust, paper and so on.
It enraged Bangalore-based Urmila Chanam that cultural taboos, myths and stigma around menstruation in India are often used to suppress women’s voices and to stop them for having access to information about their health, and safe and hygienic sanitation.
Time to Break the Silence
She started ‘Breaking the Silence,’ a campaign for which she travels all over India, educating girls and women on the biology of menstruation, its hygienic management and the safe and environment-friendly disposal of used sanitary material. “It began as a social media campaign to help get sanitary supplies for women. Now my effort is to dispel myths and give the right information on menstrual hygiene, while garnering support for the campaign from the urban and educated population through social media. We have to move from shame to pride because periods is a life-giving phenomenon,” says Urmila.
When a girl is about to hit puberty:
- Explain to her about the changes in her body, so that she does not have to face embarrassing situations.
- Arm her with awareness and important information about menstruation and maintaining hygiene during periods.
- Sensitise the boys in the family about this issue.
Here is what we should tell our teens girls:
- Use safe and adequate protection when you have periods
- Avoid unsafe methods of protection.
- Do not pay heed to superstitions and false beliefs about menstruation.
- Discuss with parents about any doubts you have regarding your body or health.
- Don’t be afraid to approach the teacher in class, if you need to use the toilet
- Change your pads regularly and maintain good hygiene.
- Don’t be embarrassed to talk about menstrual hygiene.