Menstrual Health: A Right of "Every" Menstruator
By: Akshita Dhawan & Arpita Varma* |
In the Indian society, menstruation and everything related to it has always been considered as taboo; for instance, sanitary napkins are sold in opaque packets and menses in Indian families are discussed in a hideous manner as if it is a curse or wrongdoing. Although lately, these issues are being highlighted worldwide as many menstruators have come up and discussed their problem associated with several aspects of menstruation. Menstrual Health is not only associated with abdomen cramps and back pain but also with emotional disbalance caused by lack of proper sanitation available to menstruators.
Menstrual cycle, periods or menses are commonly used terms that refer to the monthly bleeding a menstruator goes through. This natural phenomenon of menstruation is majorly associated with women and depicts their womanhood, but the fact that some sections of the LGBTQ+ community also go through their menstrual cycles- is highly overlooked; their concerns are hardly given any importance and the problems associated to their menstrual cycles are never talked upon. Therefore, to widen the scope, the term ‘menstruators’ used further in this article shall denote all individuals who experience menstruation.
Menstruation is a natural process and cannot be avoided, but the pain and uncertainty could at least be eased out by mutual support, public service, and maintaining menstrual hygiene. For facilitating the concern of hygiene during menses, government and several other corporations have taken the initiative to provide free sanitary napkins and other relevant materials to women in rural areas- free of cost, though the major concern is not only limited to providing necessary products but also to make them aware about the changes they are going through and the need for timely disposal of napkins in a prescribed manner as the repercussions they might face due to their ignorance in maintaining cleanliness (including regular bathing) during menses may leave them with fungal infections and cervical cancer.
For providing a panoramic vision, the article shall analyse on the Indian history associated with the menstrual cycle, perpetual depravity of menstrual products- especially to rural women and the LGBTQ+ community, available schemes and government’s role in the implementation of menstrual health and hygiene, and possible solutions to address the difficulties faced by the menstruators.
Social Understanding and The Evolution of A Taboo
Ironically, in ancient time, women who bleed were not considered dirty or impure. In many Indian cultures, menstruation was celebrated and even menstrual blood was served as an offering to goddesses; eventually, they were equated to mother Earth because of the simple analogy that if she bleeds then she is fertile and could help in reproducing an offspring. In some places they were given the honour of a goddess, considering the astonishing fact that women bleed out of their bodies and still don’t die.
Although conventionally, menstruation was considered auspicious; yet the turning point of this view has its roots in the highly praised and popular Hindu mythological text- Rig Veda, which narrates a story dating back to the time of an evil-being called Vritra, who was popularly known as demon of droughts as he withheld the water available for people’s use. Eventually, Indra (the king of gods) killed this demon but repented his death as he was a brahmana, having an upper hand in the Indian society. For releasing this guilt, he approached the womanhood and asked them to take his guilt to themselves in the form of a monthly menstrual cycle: considered as a form of forced punishment of guilt and sin. This thought was later validated in other texts like-Vasishta Dharma sutra that considered women impure for three days and nights. This negative mythological reasoning towards menstrual cycle has now been impacting Indian society’s psychology through ages.
This psychology took twists and turns generations by generations and the women kept on suffering the repercussions of this mythological reasoning. This even led to certain consequences where the women had to recuse themselves from the normal household chores like- cooking, sharing the same room, touching eatables, and sometimes even having to sleep on rags because of her being considered as “impure” and “polluted”.
Some communities in India still believe that women during their menses are prone to evil activities, spiritual and supernatural powers, and are signs of bad omen; for instance, if someone comes in contact with the cloth used during menstruation, then they would eventually be influenced by an evil spirit, and if a menstruator touches eatables, then that would make it stale and sour. Hence, women were very awkward to talk about their menses and usually kept this hidden from the male counterparts of the family.
This is the sociological effect which further shuts down the voice of the women and prevents them from coming forward and discussing the atrocities that they face since a lot of restrictions are already imposed upon them from the society. Although today, due to the spread of awareness among various sections of the society, the myths attached to menses have decreased. However, these myths still have its veins into the lower strata of the society which is majorly confronted by poverty- ultimately leading to unhygienic conditions during menstruation.
By having an overview of the struggles, women have gone through and are still dealing with injustice. One could now gauge the consequences of atrocities that might be faced by the intersex and transgender individuals during their menses in the old times as well as in the present era since primarily they were not even recognised as persons of different gender and majority of the population was ignorant of their existence. Now when people around the world are talking about the rights and recognition due to the LGBTQ+ community, it is high time for the society and government to deliberate upon the fact that women are not the only ones who bleed but also the intersex and transgender persons. Even after recognising the rights of the selection of gender for the LGBTQ+ community, there is still no scheme or regulation for production and distribution of sanitary napkins for them while keeping in mind their special needs. They compromise by using the same kinds of napkins available for women. Moreover, they face more hardships during their menses as compared to females due to the lack of awareness and accessibility of sanitary products for their special requirements. Therefore, the society, as well as the government, shall recognise their human right to easy accessibility of sanitary products and washrooms instead of excluding them from a common natural process they go through- as similar to any other women.
Failure in Accessing Menstrual Products
Menstrual hygiene is a paramount requirement for the mental and physical well-being of every menstruator. Individuals who experience menses are entitled to all essentials at the time of the requirement, but kudos to the deeply entrenched taboo that surrounds menstruation- a natural biological phenomenon is somehow reduced to a mere ‘women’s issue’.
Around 30% of the country’s population experiences menstruation and nearly 23 million girls drop out of school due to improper menstrual hygiene management and thus, the level of requirement of menstrual products is at its peak; however, the latest instances of GST rates being levied on sanitary napkins, initial exclusion of them from essential items (was added to a revised list much later) and scarcity of its supply in rural areas is making every woman suffer. In addition, the onset of the 2020 pandemic due to Covid-19 has resulted in a significant decrease in the supply of menstrual products with a lower demand of them; consequentially, the prices of sanitary pads have escalated-keeping them away from the reach of poorer economic groups. Although sanitary pads are deemed as the only essential requirement, it should also be noted that water, medicines, access to food and proper shelter is equally important.
Menstruation does not propagate discrimination; it does not validate the socio-economic disparities nor does it seek the poor-rich ratio of an economy. However, migrant labourers, domestic helpers, daily wage workers, etc. are all experiencing a major upheaval in their lives since they still have no access to water, toilets, or quality sanitary napkins. They are all exhausted yet accustomed to a lifestyle grappled with poverty and injustice, and now using old rags, dried leaves, unhygienic silicone dyed products, bleached or cheap sanitary napkins, plastic applicators, etc. would even make their body susceptible to cervical cancer and infertility, reproductive tract infections, severe cramping, or result in psychological distress.
Approximately, only 2 to 3 percent women in rural India use sanitary napkins and most girls prefer home-grown or readily material, latter often being unsanitary. Roughly 120 million adolescents suffer menstrual dysfunctions, and nearly 60,000 die due to cervical cancer. Thus, subsidised sanitary napkins and menstrual cups, and small-scale production of reusable and organic products for menstruation would be more economically viable and hygienic than the existing practices of using clothes as absorbents.
Government Intervention- the Need of Hour
Production of alternative menstrual products, mass-scale campaigns on menstrual hygiene, policies over subsidies, initiatives for empowering women and girls with menstrual hygiene and its benefits- all requires government interventions or parliamentary approvals. However, imprudent policymakers and human-right activists are making it worse by assuming stewardship of menstrual issues as due to stereotypical mindsets, menstruation still continues to be just a by-product of gender disparity in India.
In 2014, the Indian Government launched the National Menstrual Hygiene Scheme under the ‘Rashtriya Kishor SwasthyaKaryakram’ program to promote menstrual hygiene in rural areas after Congress MP Mr. Shashi Tharoor had raised a parliamentary question on the Government’s efforts regarding the same. However, a study was conducted by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in 2018 stated established that 80% of women knew about sanitary napkins, but a mere 30% of them used it since it was not easily available or affordable and they feared the reactions of the society as well. Further, during 2019 Lok Sabha elections, even the Election Commission itself decided to distribute free sanitary napkins; although the government remained oblivious to the fact that distribution without ensuring awareness is of no use.
It is obligatory for the Government to intervene for improving the disposal mechanism and invest on technology in order to provide the public with dispensaries in washrooms and avoid infection and other health implications, and to provide incentives to small and medium scale innovators so as to increase workforce and hence the production of menstrual products. Moreover, knowledge of menstruation and menstrual hygiene should be imparted by awareness campaigns so that they all could have a better understanding of the dire repercussions of unhealthy menstrual practices. Furthermore, there is also a requirement of promoting low cost but high-quality sanitary napkins involving proper stakeholders for quality production and distribution.
Pragmatic solutions like production of reusable cloth pads, menstrual cups, compostable sanitary pads and several schemes have all been initiated, but the goal of the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is still unmet. To actualise this goal, the government is expected to make conventional efforts aimed at signifying the role of menstrual hygiene, and providing easy access to safe products, responsive water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure. The Bureau of Indian Standards also had laid down the acceptable standards for disposable of sanitary pads, but these were never enforced. Also, researchers indicate that unhealthy ways of the disposal: in open, or in water bodies, or in toilets or incinerators- that do not even adhere to the provisions set by the Central Pollution Control Board(as per the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016) are proving to be unhealthy for the environment and the people. Feasible and suitable disposal mechanisms, awareness campaigns, high-quality menstrual products and effective legal provisions that penalize intentional ignorance of authorities have to be adopted in order to holistically promote the concept of menstrual hygiene and take forth the momentum of maximising the impact of efforts.
A huge step forward was surely when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the nation on 15th August 2020 unflinchingly talked about the taboo that still surrounds menstruation. During his national speech, he mentioned the Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Kendra Scheme under which in 6000 Jan Aushadhi Kendras, more than 5 crore women have been provided with sanitary napkins only at Re. 1. In essence, he successfully drew attention to a subject on which the masses prefer to remain silent.
Conclusion and Suggestions
According to the above discussion, it could now be concluded that there is a high requirement of making some changes in the societal behaviour towards a menstruator, and so following are few suggestions:
Advertisements can fulfil the task of inducing a change in the societal attitude towards the need for menstrual hygiene via television, newspaper or by any other source of media presently only females are featured in the advertisement of any sanitary product used during menstruation; a step should now be taken to also include males in this advertisements to make them more open and universal. The advertisements could also refer to the cleanliness that should be maintained while using sanitary pads, tampons or any other menstrual product as nowadays, only products are depicted and not the usage of it.
More menstrual products specifically made for intersex and transgender should be introduced and be advertised by the government as well as private industries for normalising the taboo associated with the persons of the third gender. Furthermore, the government should not only come with a menstrual scheme predominately serving women but other menstruators as well- as per the United Nations Children’s Fund(UNICEF) guidance on menstrual health and hygiene.
Education regarding menstruation and its sanitization should be provided in all co-ed and unisex schools while taking all the menstruators into consideration to make it more convenient for all the genders to speak about it in their social surroundings. Majority of schools impact awareness and educate others about menstruation being gender-specific, which is indirectly the first step where the naming and assuming menstruation as taboo takes place.
Lastly, experiences of menstruation are mostly based on the mythical beliefs within a household, and poverty makes the situation all more vulnerable and problematic. Since menstrual problems are loaded with the social identity and economic adversities of an individual, women and the LGBTQ+ community often end up bearing the brunt by not being able to set healthcare as their priority. It is rather certain that even if the government takes an initiative of distributing free sanitary napkins, they would all prefer to sell it for feeding their families rather than utilizing them for their own safety. Menstruation is a phenomenon occurring to those who have been ostracized for way too long. However, it is time to reinvent the boundaries and provide what is due to those who have been the explicit targets of patriarchy and economic vulnerability. Without encouraging the predominance of patriarchy or condescending beliefs, the government needs to achieve the mammoth task of ensuring menstrual hygiene by implementing Menstrual Hygiene Management Guidelines for schools and households while calling out for sensitisation of men, boys, families and communities about menstruation for bridging the socio-economic gaps and restoring the value of menstrual hygiene in order to steer clear of depriving someone of a dignified life for benefiting every menstruator, especially those who belong to the rural and tribal areas and are too embarrassed and reluctant to use any menstrual product for their own good.
* The authors are the students at National Law Institute University, Bhopal & Amity Law School, Noida respectively.