100 Women 2014: The taboo of menstruating in India

By Rupa Jha
BBC Hindi

Media caption,
Indian women discuss the impact of a lack of cheap and safe sanitary products

"I will never let my daughter suffer the way I do when I have my period. My family treats me like an untouchable.

"I'm not allowed into the kitchen, I can't enter the temple, I can't sit with others."

There's a sense of determination in 32-year-old Manju Baluni's voice. I met her in a remote village in Uttarakhand, a hilly state in the north of India.

In India, there is generally a silence around the issue of women's health - especially around menstruation. A deep-rooted taboo feeds into the risible myth-making around menstruation: women are impure, filthy, sick and even cursed during their period.

'Tense and worried'

People believe that menstruating women should not take baths and are anaemic.

A recent study by a sanitary towel manufacturer found that 75% of women living in cities still buy their pads wrapped in a brown bag or newspaper because of the shame associated with menstruation.

They also almost never ask a male family member to buy sanitary towels or tampons.

I grew up in a house full of women, but we still never discussed openly one of nature's most normal rites of passage.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Girls learn to hide their stained unhygienic cloths from men after washing them, says Rupa Jha

My mother used to cut up old bed sheets and hide them in a box, ready to be used by her four young daughters.

The biggest challenge was to dry those pieces of cloth. I have vivid memories of feeling tense and worried about the whole process.

I was taught the trick by my elder sisters - how to slip these stained clothes under other clothes without any men noticing them. We could not risk putting them out in the open under the sun to dry completely.

Felt 'very dirty'

The result was that they never got properly dry, leaving a horrible stench. The unhygienic cloth got used over and over again.

Lack of water made the cleaning process even more cumbersome and unhygienic. The story has not changed much since then for many Indian women.

Many recent studies show that these practices constitute a serious threat to health. It's reported that at least one in five girls in India drop out of school due to menstruation.

Image source, Rupa Jha
Image caption,
Some girls stop going to school when they have their period

Fifteen-year-old Margdarshi lives in a remote village in Uttarakashi.

She loves going to school though it means a long difficult trek through very hilly terrain. She never misses her classes, except for last year when she almost gave up her studies after she got her period for the first time.

"The biggest problem was managing it. It still is. I feel embarrassed, angry and very dirty. I stopped going to school initially."

'A human issue'

She wants to be a doctor and wonders why boys in her biology class laugh so much when the teacher explains the process of menstruation.

"I hate it. I wish we could be more relaxed and feel comfortable talking about it. This happens to every woman so what is there to laugh about?"

Anshu Gupta, founder of a non-governmental organisation, Goonj, feels that the problem lies in the fact that this has been made into a women's issue.

Image caption,
In India women make sanitary towels from recycled cloths

"It's not a women issue. It's a human issue but we have just isolated it. Some of us need to come out of this culture of shame and silence. We need to break it."

Image source, Rupa Jha
Image caption,
An organisation is working to dispel myths

Trying to ending the silence around the issue, Goonj is one of several groups that are running campaigns to educate people about menstruation and the myths around it.

It works in 21 out of 30 states in India.

The organisation is also making cheap sanitary towels from recycled cloths to help those 70% of Indian women who don't have access to safe and hygienic pads.

Shattering myths

Other thriving initiatives are also trying to break the taboos around menstruation.

Menstrupedia, a website run by four Indians, aims at "shattering myths and understandings surrounding menstruation" and features comic books and succinct guides on puberty, menstruation and hygiene management. It receives more than 100,000 visitors a month.

A school dropout from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu was among the first to start making cheap sanitary pads using simple machines.

A Muruganatham says the sanitary towel has to be "brought out of the closet".

It is tough being a woman of modest means in India, and it's not going to change any time soon.

But gradually women have started to take charge of their lives. Many of them are not stuck at home during their period - they can choose to go out, work, or continue with their studies.

Most importantly, they are beginning to talk about it. Without feeling embarrassed.

The BBC's 100 Women season runs online, on BBC World News TV and on BBC World Service radio from 27-29 October. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #100Women.

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