Tribal women from Southern Rajasthan attending a session on menstruation
Last month, I got a chance to attend a session on menstrual health and hygiene conducted by Vishakha, an organisation working on women empowerment and education. The audience for this session were a group of twenty five tribal women. These women come from places where menstruation is believed to be a taboo and menstrual hygiene had never been heard of before. Women do not use underwear in these regions so I wouldn’t be far fetched in saying that sanitary napkins are an alien term. They bleed in the clothes they wear and restrict movements during these days. Of the women who use cloth, the condition of the cloth is so deplorable that not using a cloth would be a much safer option. Leukorrhea (whitish or yellowish discharge of mucus from the vagina) is a common phenomenon among these women, one of the reasons being poor vaginal health.
Despite all these dire conditions, women are expected to be healthy child bearers. Women who cannot bear children are disowned by their husbands and family. This reason is enough for the husband to remarry a women so that she can bear kids for him. Patriarchy has so seeped in the community that these tribal women had to accept (without any other option) such abhorrent practices of disowning of the women if they cannot provide a heir.
Thus, it was not only important but also extremely challenging at the same time to address an audience of women believing in myths and practice various superstitions during menstruation from ages and till date continue to so. To make them understand, what even many of the educated urbans still fail to understand about menstruation was the biggest challenge. The trainers from Vishakha did and excellent job with explaining the processes with simplest examples and day to day references. The session helped me, a girl born and brought up in the city, to answer questions that were largely unknown to me. Let me share with you some excerpts from the training session about menstruation and debunk some commonly practiced myths with some interesting explanations.
Why do we not talk about Menstruation?
When we have a headache, stomach ache, joint pain, chest pain – we immediately let some one from family or a friend know about it and then go to the doctors, right? We wreck havoc when a pimple pops up on our faces we are so conscious about it. But is it the same for menstrual health and hygiene? When it comes to talking about white discharge and menstruation, we go into a nutshell. Aren’t they part of your body which need to be looked after and taken care? Should they also not be spoken about and addressed to just like our other body parts?
So what exactly is Menstruation?
There are two main parts for a female reproductive system, ovaries that produce eggs and the uterus where the foetus grows during pregnancy. When the egg is released it travels to the uterus where it is embedded on the uterine walls that have grown thick with blood and tissue to nourish the egg in case it becomes fertile.
Vishakha explained this process with an example of a guest visiting our home. Considering the uterus as our home and the egg as a guest. Now when we have a guest visiting us at home, you also got to imagine that you don’t have any furniture at home except for a carpet. Now you will lay a carpet for the guests to sit on, right? Similarly, the egg which travels to the uterus once in every month, embeds itself on a carpet made of blood and tissues on the uterine walls. This carpet helps the egg to nourish in case the egg becomes fertile. When the egg does not fertilizes, it is time for the guest to leave the home. Now when the guest is leaving, surely we will pick up the carpet and pack it up. Similarly, when the egg does not fertilizes, it results into the egg (visitor) and the blood and tissues (carpet) being used and thus they have to be thrown out from the body. This unused blood and tissues which leads to, what we normally refer to as ‘periods’, ‘monthlies’, ‘the curse’, ‘that time of the month’.
Is the blood that flows during menstruation impure?
Women often think that the blood flowing out of their body during menstruation is impure blood. Well, it will be more appropriate to call the blood unused. Technically the fluid contains some blood, as well as cervical mucus, vaginal secretions, and endometrial tissue which is nutrient rich. By no means is the blood impure, after all it is the same blood that is used to nourish the foetus. The trainers from Vishakha explained this by asking the women of color of blood, if there is green, black colored blood? Because if there is no differentiation in color in our bodies, then how can we decide that the menstrual blood is impure. And if human body produces impure blood then where does the impure blood in a man’s body exits from?
Why does the blood smell so foul if it is not impure?
Team Vishakha explained this question by explaining example from our day-to-day life. How does a milk which has been kept for 5-7 days smell? Foul, right? This foul smell is generated due to reaction between the atmospheric oxygen and the bacteria present in the milk. Similarly when the blood and tissue mixture (menstrual fluid) come in contact with the air, the harmless bacteria in the blood develop and causes an odour. That’s the reason we turn up our noses during those 4-5 days ever so frequently.
Why do we not touch anything during periods?
The women were explained how the reason behind this restriction has only to do with hygiene. Before the inventions of products to manage blood, women did not maintain a proper hygiene during menstruation. This resulted into unhygienic conditions that might cause health issues. This is the only a reason why they might be avoiding women from touching food. But in this age of let alone sanitary napkins, the products have now evolved to menstrual cups and tampons, we do not have any reason for such unhygienic situations – at least in the urban areas.
Why women are not allowed in temples?
Temple activities were a major part of the everyday work of women, traditionally; and continue to be so. Part of the restriction was to ensure that women get adequate rest from every day chores (including things like cooking, and hence entering the kitchen). Also, the women were explained how in a patriarchal society like ours, putting restrictions on women was the best way to keep a tab on them. How otherwise will the men come to know that they are bleeding and are fit to produce babies.
To bring about an behavioral change with just one session or training is not possible. But by educating these tribal women, the trainers from Vishakha tried to make them aware of the reality. The road ahead towards empowerment and breaking free from the taboos and patriarchy is a long and challenging one. But at least we can hope that, however small, we initiate this change and give the women access to the information that will lead to better awareness. This in turn will fuel choices and thus opinions.