India: A Map of its Menstrual Hygiene

by April Wilson Binti writer | binti_period | Binti International
Thursday, 9 March 2017 13:22 GMT

Art by @carolinehorimoto. Image: Binti.

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Although, shame surrounding periods is a global issue that needs to be tackled; the problem reaches further for a lot of Indian women due to the lack of health advice they receive about their periods. Menstrual hygiene, so essentially how to keep sanitary during your period in India is grossly neglected. There are many reasons that have contributed towards why this is the case, but it is largely due to that periods are simply just not talked about. One such reason why periods are not talked is that they are linked too closely with sex, as menarche symbolises puberty and traditionally when girls would be paired off. And so consequently, these women suffer.

For example, many women in rural areas often wear cloths, instead of disposable sanitary towels (due to a lack of access to them, and even if they did have access to them their toilet facilities do not allow for a place to dispose of them). These cloths then need to be cleaned in order to be used again. However, women in these communities, according to a report conducted by the charity Water Aid, often lack the access to the clean water needed to wash the cloths after use and a place to dry them. They also usually do not even have somewhere private to change from one cloth to another. Unsurprisingly, a lot of women then do not change their cloths enough during their period, putting them at risk of a myriad of potential problems. A paper by J. Senthil et al focused on how: “Infections due to lack of hygiene during menstruation are often reported” and the, “repeated use of unclean napkins or the improperly dried cloth napkins before its reuse results in harboring of micro-organisms causing vaginal infections”.

A lot of these issues however stem not from the poor menstrual hygiene but why that poor menstrual hygiene exists in the first place, and that is the lack of education surrounding menstruation. The aforementioned report by Water Aid also mentioned a survey of 160 girls in West Bengal (Dasgupta and Sarkar, 2008) that found that 67.5% of girls were aware about menstruation before menarche, but 97.5% did not know the source of menstrual bleeding.

One of the ways to change this is tackling the issue at an institutional level, but this is often hard as it is usually men who control such organisations. The Water Aid reports mention how it is men who are often key to the decision making that affects whether menstrual hygiene services are provided, as they are usually the headmasters of schools, or the head of the family who is responsible for building the family toilet. The challenge is to get men to talk about menstruation and periods, a topic they have probably never discussed, and feel uncomfortable thinking, yet alone talking about.

However, men need to be included in this discussion in order to make change happen. A strategy that the charity Binti (a charity that promotes and campaigns for menstrual dignity) advocates and actively encourages. The Binti team of volunteers is in fact a mixture of men and women and Binti does not fail to make sure that men are involved in their discussions.

Something which, they will ensure they will do in their current project in India and Nepal. During the project Binti will be working closely with That Period Film, a film which explores how that in the 21st century periods are still considered a taboo subject. Binti will also be looking closely at the way menstruation is viewed in these regions, in order to further their education to help find more solutions to the problem of menstrual hygiene in India and Nepal. As, the stories and facts already gathered about the regions they are visiting, Nepal, Mumbai, New Delhi and Rajasthan paint quite a bleak picture for menstrual hygiene.

Nepal

Nepal, actually has been in the news recently regarding menstruation due to the death of a 15-year-old girl who died from smoke inhalation after being isolated in a ‘menstruation hut’. This was because of a local custom called chhaupadi, which considers women unclean during their periods so they are therefore banished for the extent of their menstruation. Where they are banished to is what is known as a ‘menstruation hut’, and is a small building, often isolated in the wilderness where these women run the risk of the elements and of being attacked by wild animals, and raped.

Restriction is in fact common in Nepal for girls during their period, as according to the Water Aid report the concept of menstruation being something that pollutes is felt strongly in society:

“A woman is ritually impure during menstruation and anyone or anything she touches becomes impure as well. It is usually the mothers who enforce these restrictions.”


(WaterAid in Nepal 2009a, 10)

Mumbai (Maharashtra)

In Mumbai menstruation is still often a nightmare for many women. In the state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital) the report by J. Senthil et al found that 78.2% of women use cloths during menstruation, 5.3% use locally prepared napkins and only 23.8% use sanitary napkins. Therefore, the majority of women still have to use cloths that have to be washed, and because of the shame surrounding periods these cloths are often not looked after properly. A shame which is so strong that a woman reportedly committed suicide in Mumbai by hanging herself in her house, which her family alleged was due to that she could not bear the pain she went through while menstruating.  

Also, women in Mumbai have not just faced a lack of talk around menstruation but outright discrimination. Noorjehan Niaz, as an adult found that she was banned from visiting the famous Muslim shrine of Haji Ali because she was told the ban was to protect female worshippers against sexual attention because when they prayed the loose end (pallu) of their sari’s fell exposing their chest area, but also because it is a ‘sin’ for women to go near the grave while they are menstruating.

New Delhi

In New Delhi, the report by J. Senthil et al found that 46.9 % of women use cloths, 3% locally prepared napkins and 62.6% napkins, so there appears to be more accessibility to sanitary products in this region, or at least more women using them. However, that does not mean that for a lot of women menstrual hygiene is taken care of any better.

Kamala Sripada, writing for First Post, visited a slum in New Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar slum area and said that she was shown the area in which twenty year old Shefali attempted to dry the cloths she uses during menstruation:

“Once we entered, she moved to the dingiest corner of the room. As I inched closer, I could see it was also the murkiest corner of the house, covered by a dirty plastic sheet for a door. Inside this area was a string, hanging to the sheets, pointing to which Shefali said, "this is where I put it to dry"."

The reason why women, like Shefail in slums don’t dry their rags in the sunlight, which sterilises them is because it is considered shameful to show a rag that is worn below and they worry about having to explain that to men. So instead many women hide them under objects like a mattress or in the dingiest corner of the room, and because they are not dried properly they get bacteria on them.

Also, water facilities are mostly shared and open so it is difficult washing the cloth without everyone seeing it in the first place, and washing the ‘dirty’ menstrual rag is seen to lead to more impurity.

It is these cultural reasons coupled with the logistical reasons, such as no toilets or doors on toilets that increases the issue.

Rajasthan

In Rajasthan, the report by J. Senthil et al found that 86.8 percent of women using cloths during menstruation, while 11.5 percent using locally prepared napkins and only 13.7 percent use napkins, so out of all the regions compared so far Rajasthan has the least amount of women using sanitary napkins.

However, there has been some initiatives for change in the region since the J. Senthil et al report was published. In particular, the installation of automated sanitary napkin vending machines and incinerator’s in schools and other areas within the Ajmer district.

Breaking traditions

Therefore, while there is a hope for change and initiatives are starting to be made, it is not enough. Traditions cannot be broken through the older generation but it is possible to alter the attitudes of the younger generation. However, this can only be done by supporting campaigns to make a difference. These women do not have to risk infections because of their period, or be too afraid to talk about the pain they experience. They should not be banished or cast aside. They should have a chance at a future they deserve- a future with menstrual dignity.

In order to do this help support charities, like Binti in their battle for menstrual dignity in India and Nepal. You can contact Binti through their social media on either their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram page. You can also donate to a project in India by following this link.

Part of Binti’s message is to ${esc.dollar}{esc.hash}smashshame so talk about your period or about periods on social media and help end the culture of silence. Binti’s key policy on the issue is to  talk about the issue and realise there are problems, so that maybe we can start evaluating and bringing change to make it easier for women in India and Nepal to live like human beings. As, there is a bigger reason these problems happen than the lack of water. 

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