Menstrual cycle is an integral part of a female’s life which due to the superstitions and myths followed by the families and others in the community, gets dangerously ignored and is not given importance. In rural areas, and I assume parts of urban might also not be untouched, women still follow rituals which are harmful to their own health and hygiene. In the places where women are not the part of decision-making process in the family, they do not have any say in birth spacing; menstrual hygiene awareness becomes most sensitive and significant for them. Instead of providing proper rest and nutrition to their body, the treatment the women get and do to themselves makes their body prone to harmful diseases and infections. The government has provided various facilities to increase the level of awareness in the rural areas through strengthening Anganwadis and ANM workers. However, the awareness level has not changed much, to which there is an increase in the maternal health and menstrual health related issues. In my fellowship work at Samarthan, I recently got an opportunity to conduct a study on the status of menstrual hygiene and its management in Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh. Here are some findings.
A group discussion with females (18-40 years) in 10 villages in Sehore, MP reveals that the awareness level in the villages is very low. The respondents were not aware of the onset of menarche and for those, their mothers were also not the main source of information. One respondent who was not aware of menarche stated that “Even after starting off period, my mother was not ready to discuss it – that is why I asked my sister and friends.” The teachers in schools also don’t discuss menstrual cycle with the young girls. Elder sisters and friends are the only solace. The information that comes from them, however, cannot be always trusted and accurate. The women still think that they got cursed by God for having periods. According to them, women deserve to get treated badly and that’s the reason why periods occur. The adolescent girls also are not well aware of the use of the sanitary napkins. They feel more comfortable in using cloth.
- Women don’t maintain any hygiene while menstruating; they use dirty and unwashed clothes repeatedly.
- They are not allowed to go to the kitchen and sleep in the same bed with her husband because they are thought to be dirty and impure while having periods. The women are not allowed to visit temples and other social areas.
- They are not allowed to tend to the cattle, people believe that if the women in her periods touch the cow or the goat, they become infertile.
- The pregnant women don’t allow any women or girl to touch her in their periods just because they think that in that case the child will die or the menstruating women can create the problem in her pregnancy.
- People treat a woman during her periods as untouchable. The women are sent to the field areas to do the agricultural work, but not allowed to work at home.
- School going girls use cloth, and during their periods they usually stay back at home because of weakness and dullness. Also because they worry about the stains on their clothes.
- The women in these study villages are very rigid and strict in following certain rules like cleaning all the utensils, clothes used after the periods get over etc.
One woman during the interviews shared that it’s very tough for her to go to fields in ‘those days’, but just because she cannot sit free at home, she does that. One school going girl said that “Zadatar ladkiyaan un dino school nahi aati kyuki unko dar lagta hai ke agar wo jaengi aur daag lag gaye kapde par to unka mazak udaaya jayega.”
There are no safe methods of the disposal of sanitary napkins and clothes used during the menstrual cycle in the village. Most of the women prefer to burn the clothes or dig them into the open places behind their houses. Lack of water access is critical in this regard.
Sanitary pads are available in most villages at shops, especially for young girls they are available at Anganwadi centers which are provided at cheaper rates so that the population can easily afford them. In anganwadis, the government of Madhya Pradesh has made a corner where all the facilities, which include the necessary medicines and sanitary pads required during the menstrual cycle, available. The anganwaids call it “The Udita Corner” and it is compulsory for each anganwadi to have one such corner in their centers. After having easy access, people still don’t buy because of lack of awareness. Also the behavioural change communication around this has not been as effective – I wonder why. Wearing the pads make them uncomfortable is one of the major responses that emerged. There are few villages where there is no availability of sanitary products in the local shop, the women there get it from the adjacent village’s weekly haat. A lot of shame associated with the purchase also is often at play.
It was hard for me to resist reporting back and giving advice during the surveys and focus group discussions. The saddest part is that most women thought that whatever stigma and treatments they get and the rituals they follow are important and deserved. Few statistical facts on women’s health related to sanitary hygiene:
- Of the 355 million menstruating women in India, only 12 percent use sanitary pads
- Over 88 percent of women resorted to shocking alternatives such as clothes, ashes, and husk during menstruation, thereby causing severe reproductive health problems
- The incidence of RTI was 70 percent more common among women with unhygienic sanitary practices
- 97 percent gynecologists’ survey believes that sanitary pads can act as a preventive measure against reproductive tract infections
While government, NGOs and even social enterprises have now jumped in and are trying to change, there is still a fundamentally missing link in the menstrual hygiene management work around the country. And that is the woman’s self-realization and awareness regarding these hazards and adoption of the ways of preventing them.
It’s unfortunate in 21st century India. Of course in our male dominated society, women don’t have much say. But women should also take responsibility for not supporting their own tribe. Unless they themselves choose to fight for their rights things won’t change fast enough. Secondly, talking about sex and related issues should not be a hush hush affair. It’s integral to nature, so why should we shy away talking about it. Parents have to take charge and break these taboos.
Yes that need to be change and that will again happen only when people self-realize on what they are supporting and acting upon.