Oh my crimson legacy….mensturation and the female body

Taboo

“When she bleeds the smells I know change colour. There is iron in her soul on those days. She smells like a gun.” 

Ramia knew it was cancer. Ankita thought she was injured. None of the girls knew why they were suddenly bleeding, why their stomachs were “paining,” as Indian English has it. They cried and were terrified and then they asked their mothers. And their mothers said, you are normal. You are menstruating. You are a woman now. But that is not all. When you menstruate, don’t cook food because you will pollute it. Don’t touch idols because you will defile them. Don’t handle pickles because they will go rotten with your touch.

The taboo of menstruation in India causes real harm. Women in some tribes are forced to live in a cowshed throughout their periods. There are health issues, like infections caused by using dirty rags, and horror stories, like that of one girl who was too embarrassed to ask her mother for a clean cloth, and used one she found without knowing it had lizard eggs in it. But beyond superstition and discrimination, many Indian women face the straight forward lack of clean, safe lavatory facilities. Most schools I visited had filthy latrines. Students and teachers made do with fields and back alleys. It can take years, even generations, to change a taboo. But anecdotally, outreach workers note that the only girls who don’t believe the superstitions about menstruation are those with educated mothers. So the best way to change the minds of future women is to keep girls in school today, and basic lavatory facilities are one of the easiest ways to do that.

 The origin of this myth dates back to the Vedic times and is often been linked to Indra's slaying of Vritras. For, it has been declared in the Veda that guilt, of killing a brahmana-murder, appears every month as menstrual flow as women had taken upon themselves a part of Indra's guilt. She must be “purified” before she is allowed to return to her family and day to day chores of her life. However, scientifically it is known that the actual cause of menstruation is ovulation followed by missed chance of pregnancy that results in bleeding from the endometrial vessels and is followed by preparation of the next cycle. Therefore, there seems no reason for this notion to persist that menstruating women are “impure.”

In India, the topic has been a taboo until date. Such taboos about menstruation present in many societies impact on girls’ and women's emotional state, mentality and lifestyle and most importantly, health. The challenge, of addressing the socio-cultural taboos and beliefs in menstruation, is further compounded by the low girls’ knowledge levels and understandings of puberty, menstruation, and reproductive health. Thus, there is the need to follow a strategic approach in combating these issues.

Cultural norms and religious taboos on menstruation are often compounded by traditional associations with evil spirits, shame and embarrassment surrounding sexual reproduction. In some cultures, women bury their cloths used during menstruation to prevent them being used by evilspirits. In Surinam, menstrual blood is believed to be dangerous, and amalevolent person can do harm to a menstruating woman or girl by using blackmagic. It is also believed that a woman can use her menstrual blood to impose her will on a man. Interestingly, in Asia including India, such beliefs are still practiced.

Many of the practices during menstruation have direct implications on reproductive health. For instance, not bathing during menstruation can lead to compromise in hygiene of the girl and thus lead to there productive tract infections.The first and foremost strategy in this regard is raising the awareness among the adolescent girls related to menstrual health and hygiene. Young girls often grow up with limited knowledge of menstruation because their mothers and other women shy away from discussing the issues with them. Adult women may themselves not be aware of the biological facts or good hygienic practices, instead passing on cultural taboos and restrictions to be observed. Community based health education campaigns could prove worthwhile in achieving this task. Low cost sanitary napkins can be locally made and distributed particularly in rural and slum areas as these are the areas where access to the product is difficult. Government of India has approved a scheme to improve menstrual hygiene for 1.5 Crore adolescent girls by distributing lowcost sanitary napkins in rural areas under the National Rural Health Mission since 2010. Increasing the role of the male partner and clearing the beliefs system of the male partner is also pertinent in combating deep rooted social beliefs and cultural taboos. Men and boys typically know even less, but it is important for them to understand menstruation so they can support their wives, daughters, mothers, students, employees, and peers. Sensitization of health workers, Accredited Social Health Activists and Anganwadi workers regarding menstruation biology must also be done so that they can further disseminate this knowledge in the community and mobilize social support against busting menstruation related myths. Adolescent Friendly Health Services Clinics must also have trained manpower to address these issues.

Menstruation is nothing but a very normal biological phenomenon, and adolescent girls and women should understand that they have the power of procreation only because of this virtue. So people there st nothing to hype about periods… we bleed and its okay!! Deal with it…

Surbhi Sachdeva 

Miranda House