“Stigma around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is a violation of several human rights, most importantly of the right to human dignity”.
- Jyoti Sanghera, Chief of the UN Human Rights Office Economic and Social Issues Section (OHCHR, 2014)
The discourse surrounding menstruation and menstrual health and hygiene management in current times can be said to be vehemently gaining momentum in the way that it’s finding a voice in public spheres more and more all across the world. This can be seen in the worldwide observance of Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28th May, celebrated by holding talks and panel discussions on menstrual health and its importance. Although it is an important step, the question is if it is tackling all the issues related to menstrual health everywhere?
In the Indian context, the way menstruation has been talked about and seen as is clouded by numerous socio-cultural factors. In the ancient Indian text of Atharva Vedas, we see references to Atharvanic charms useful to stop heavy bleeding during menstruation (Sangle, 2010). Sangle further refers to texts that recommend ways to take care of women during menstruation. This sheds light on how menstrual health had been given importance in ancient India. On the other hand, some religious texts link menstruation to pollution as a form of non-pregnancy. In Hinduism, women have banned from entering temple premises and do pooja (pray). This kind of socio-religious linkage to menstruation and the attached notions of impurity and pollution which has led women to be treated as inferiors in society can be owed to the historical culture of stigmatization of periods.
Sociologist Erving classified stigma into three types- abominations of the body (e.g., burns, scars, deformities), blemishes of individual character (e.g., criminality, addictions), and ‘tribal’ identities or social markers associated with marginalized groups (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation). In accordance with this theory, menstruation has come to fit all the three categories as it was considered almost equal to an abomination, it was viewed as more disgusting than other bodily fluids and women in some cultures would be put through purification ceremonies as they were considered unclean (Johnston-Robledo & Chrisler, 2013). Some anthropologists say that such stigmatization might be because people did not understand the physiology of menstruation.
As we look at India and its history of stigmatizing menstruation, we see the stigma being passed down embedded in our society even today. Women on periods still find them considered impure during their monthly cycles and forbidden from entering religious premises. The taboo has led to open conversations on reproductive health, in general, be shushed. In my opinion, this is what has trickled down to create entailing logistical problems at the level of rights of women, their menstrual health and a compromise in facilities for women’s menstrual hygiene.
According to WHO’s October 2017 survey of women across India, 43 % of Indian women from urban areas did not have access to sanitary essentials at the beginning of periods. Around 62% of women in the age group 15-24 years still relied on cloth during periods while 36% felt uncomfortable in buying them with other customers around. Despite constituting nearly half of the population of the country, millions of women lack access to good menstrual health. These problems are characteristic of the stigma and negligence of menstrual health in India. The access to sanitary products for menstruation was also aggravated by putting 12% GST on sanitary napkins and 18% on tampons, making it too expensive for a basic necessity. A lack of menstruation education in Indian schools that could help teach children about reproductive health and deal with the taboos around it healthily also contributes to an increase in the overall problem of the negligence of it. In a study conducted at a Govandi slum in Mumbai, 53% of the women expressed embarrassment or shame in association to talking about periods and said that they felt it was impure and would not ask for pads in front of anyone else. The researcher concluded that there exists a positive correlation between the level of education and having an adequate Menstrual Health Management System (MHM) (Ambeza, 2018).
In Mumbai, Myna Mahila Foundation is trying to improve women’s health and to empower women to do something about their health by learning about it, by talking about it, by being part of the process of creating sanitary napkins. Myna Mahila Foundation was founded by Suhani Jalota in 2015 and has only grown since then as a non-profit movement attempting to bring change to the condition of menstrual hygiene in Mumbai. The foundation manufactures sanitary pads, sells them door to door across slums in Mumbai and for all of this work employs women from these very slum areas in Mumbai to engage in the foundation. Myna Mahila Foundation as its name suggests, like the loud bird Myna, wants women to get talking about the hushed topic of menstruation and reproductive health, as that is the only way to sensationalize an otherwise silenced problem. They do so by setting up exhibitions, publishing their own blog on topics dealing with menstrual health, training the employees in basic conversational English and life skills and working on a module on menstrual health to be shared with school children.
Along with MMF, other foundations like Goonj and Jayshree industries are working on creating low-cost sanitary pads for women. Menstrual Health Management has become a globally declared public health topic. It is essential to look at this as not just through a medical gaze but look at it as a social menace and a violation of women’s right to have access to a healthy lifestyle.
 Outlook Web Bureau (2018, February 11). Menstrual Hygiene in India. Outlook. Retrieved from https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/menstrual-hygiene-in-india/308166
 MHM is a globally recognized public health topic and propagates using a clean menstrual management material to absorb or collect menstrual blood, having access to adequate WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) facilities, as well as understand the basic facts linked to the menstrual cycle and how to manage it with dignity and without discomfort or fear.” (WHO and UNICEF).
Ambeza, V. (2018, March 15). How menstrual hygiene impacts women’s health and rights. [Blog]. Retrieved from https://mynamahila.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/how-menstrual-hygiene-impact-womens-health-and-rights/
Johnston-Robledo, I., & Chrisler, J. C. (2013). The menstrual mark: Menstruation as social stigma. Sex roles, 68 (1-2), 9-18. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0052-z
OHCHR. (2014, March 14). Every woman's right to water, sanitation and hygiene. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Everywomansrighttowatersanitationandhygiene.aspx
Sangle, M. D. (2010). Women’s health care and women physicians in the Bombay Presidency 1886_1947 (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Shodhganga http://hdl.handle.net/10603/161225
Header Image Courtesy:Wikimedia Commons
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