Gender Violence: The Health Impact – Menstruation: A Biological Process or a Bleeding Curse?

by Aparna Gupta

Gender violence, though often brutally visible, also manifests itself in the most routine acts. In India’s highly patriarchal society, with strict notions of purity and pollution, the routine biological process of menstruation is often viewed as a ‘curse’. Thus, the issues associated with menstruation are never discussed openly, burdening young girls with archaic taboos and restrictions, and even denying them access to basic hygiene and sanitation requirements during their monthly period, thereby reinforcing gender inequities.

One of the worst examples of this is seen in the regressive traditional practices of the Kadu Golla community in Chitradurg District, Karnataka. This community considers a woman to be unclean when she has her monthly period, or after she delivers a baby. Such women have to live outside their villages in derelict buildings or in a hovel the size of a kennel with their newborn without access to medical care or hygienic sanitation facilities. During this time, the women are not supposed to bathe or eat cooked food. The worst sufferers are young girls who are forced to spend a few days away from school and college when they are menstruating, even if it means missing their examinations.[1]

Moreover, such archaic practices are not limited only to remote rural corners of India. According to Aakar Innovations, an NGO that works for the promotion of menstrual hygiene in India, 9 out of 10 women in the country do not have access to hygienic and effective menstrual protection.[2] In addition, according to India’s 2011 census, 89 percent of the nation’s rural population lives in households that lack toilets. The absence of proper sanitation along with the unavailability of affordable sanitary materials for menstrual hygiene results in multiple psychological and physical health problems. For instance, reproductive tract infections are 70 percent more common amongst women who use unhygienic materials during menstruation and an alarming 30 percent of girls drop out of school upon reaching puberty.[3]

Despite such grim realities, menstrual hygiene management has been continuously neglected from programmes for community water and sanitation and hygiene promotion. It is not incorporated into the infrastructural design for toilets and environmental waste disposal policies, or training guidelines for health workers. For instance, the Swaccha Bharat Abhiyan, launched by the new government with much fanfare this year, while recognising the need for proper sanitation facilities and toilets, remains silent on the requirements of menstrual hygiene services.[4]

Thus, the taboos and rituals around menstruation exclude women and girls from various aspects of social and cultural life. They have built a self-reinforcing vicious cycle of silence about the concerns of women, neglect of menstrual hygiene within development initiatives and the lack of participation of women in decision-making.

In 2011, the Central Government created the first initiative for ensuring menstrual hygiene through the launch of the Scheme for Promotion of Menstrual Hygiene among Adolescent Girls in Rural Areas.[5] The scheme aims to increase awareness among adolescent girls on menstrual hygiene, increase access to and use of high-quality sanitary napkins and ensure safe disposal of sanitary napkins in an environmentally friendly manner.[6] However the impact of the scheme is yet to be witnessed at the ground level.

Furthermore, distribution of sanitary napkins, though a crucial part of the solution in a country where 70 percent of girls cannot afford hygienic sanitary products, is not a panacea for the underlying issues that lead to discrimination. Apart from addressing the practical and infrastructural needs of toilets and sanitary napkins, there is an urgent need to promote better awareness in order to overcome the embarrassment, cultural practices and taboos surrounding this biological process, which lead to grave discrimination against women and girls.

Moreover, in order to break the shackles of menstrual taboos that reproduce unequal gender relations, involving men and adolescent boys is of crucial importance. More often than not, men play an important role in the decision-making regarding the provision of menstrual hygiene services, as policymakers, headmasters of schools, or even as the head of the family responsible for the decision to build a toilet at home. Therefore, there is a need to sensitise men and break the silence around menstruation.

[1] ‘Unclean and Outcast’, August 11-24, 2012, Frontline

http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2916/stories/20120824291604000.htm

[2] http://yourstory.com/2014/09/aakar-innovations/

[3]‘Sanitation Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right’ , AC Neilsen

http://indiasanitationportal.org/19069

[4] Guidelines for Swaccha Bharat Abhiyan, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India

http://www.mdws.gov.in/sites/upload_files/ddws/files/pdfs/Final%20Guidelines%20(English).pdf

[5] National Health Mission, Government of India

http://nrhm.gov.in/nrhm-components/rmnch-a/adolescent-health/menstrual-hygiene-scheme-mhs/schemes.html

[6] http://pib.nic.in/newsite/erelease.aspx?relid=62586

*****

Aparna Gupta is currently a fellow with PRS Legislative Research’s Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament programme. An engineer by degree, and student of policy by day, Aparna aspires to work in the field of human rights and gender violence.

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