Menstrual Awareness: Where India stands
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
In an article, Meenakshi Sharma describes the problems related to menstruation in India to be like a “chain of command”- all related to each other. Sharma, who is the Coordinator for Menstrual Hygiene Management at the WASH Alliance, puts it perfectly. There are various reasons why India has ‘issues’ related to menstruation. The problem has many sources and reasons which feed into each other.
One aspect amongst many is the lack of menstrual awareness which puts the health of all those who menstruate at risk. The issue is about more than just the female population. The people in their lives, society and media have all played a role. A cloud of ignorance forms around a natural process encountered by half our population. And so, a few questions arise- why does this lack of awareness exist? Who is behind it? And most importantly, how does it lead to other problems related to menstruation?
The Why Question
The reason people lack knowledge about menstruation is because it has been taboo for years, and continues to be. It becomes a vicious cycle- Since society labels it taboo, people refuse to talk about it or educate others which leads to a lack of awareness. Since there is a lack of awareness, myths and superstitions begin to take the place of scientific knowledge. Myths and superstitions then make the natural process ‘dirty’ and thus taboo.
The vicious cycle starts with the lack of awareness among young girls and those around them. Often, mothers are themselves inept to explain the process to an adolescent. The period being a hush-hush topic in the family may leave a teenager completely unaware. The taboo exists in schools too which have often proven to be lax when it comes to menstrual awareness.
The numbers speak for themselves- a survey revealed that nearly 60% women did not have knowledge of menstruation before their first period. 60% is a huge number and this survey only covered residents of urban areas. The numbers only get worse in rural areas. An academic review concludes that Indian schools have “poor practices” when it comes to menstrual hygiene management.
Apart from households and schools, media plays a heavy role. The way a third party looks at menstruation shapes how it is viewed. A sanitary napkin advertisement on TV may often leave you confused. Commercials display menstrual blood to be blue and often make people conscious of ‘stains’. Shopkeepers give sanitary napkins to the customers in a black bag. When all outlets for knowledge and awareness are shut, a lack of awareness is obvious.
Menstrual awareness is key
All aspects of issues related to menstruation need to be discussed because one issue may explain the other. A lack of menstrual awareness explains many things. It explains why only 20% of those menstruating in India use sanitary napkins. It also explains why India needs more than just the distribution of period products. Even with the availability of these products, many problems sustain. Due to the lack of awareness, the hygienic use of these products remains a mystery- this means that users may still be at risk of infections.
A lack of awareness also explains why adolescents and adults are embarrassed of the topic or ashamed of their period. Unawareness is a cradle for myths and superstitions. When adolescents are made to feel like a period is ‘dirty’ or ‘embarrassing’, mental distress and anxiety follow.
The lack of menstrual awareness is a social issue. And within social issues, little things are big things. The ill-information regarding menstruation translates into policies and decisions taken by those in power. This explains why period leave continues to be a topic of debate despite many voicing strong opinions. The ignorance surrounding periods has also led to the lack of appropriate infrastructure in schools and public places. Even if menstrual hygiene management guidelines exist, most Indian schools fail to implement them. Hence, most female students that attain puberty drop out of school. In India, the count comes up to 23 million.
What is the way forward?
The way forward lies in awareness, informed decisions and fruitful action. Along with the female population, parents, families, schools, communities and the media need to be informed and aware. The conversation about menstruation needs to lose a sense of taboo. Education related to menstruation needs to be compulsory in schools and not just for female children. Menstrual awareness is the only way forward and India owes it to the 23 million girls who are forced to drop out of school.
Shalabha Sarath is a student of International Relations at Shiv Nadar University. She enjoys writing for blogs and acrylic painting. She works as a Content Intern at Kanyaka Foundation.