More than a third of girls in South Asia miss school during their periods, often because they lack access to toilets or pads, and many receive no education on menstruation before reaching puberty. Having a safe period is a fantasy for many of these girls.
The aforementioned statistics as calculated by charity WaterAid and UNICEF depict that despite all the pretensions around female empowerment and gender equality, many countries around the world are failing to provide even the most basic necessities required for women and girls to live normal lives. In fact, 23 million Indian women drop out of school every year when they start menstruating.
Even though every woman on the planet menstruates, the subject is almost universally considered a taboo, especially in India. Menstruating women are often excluded from social and religious events, denied entry into temples and shrines and even kept out of kitchens.
These numbers depict an alarmingly high number of Indian girls and women who do not have the knowledge and resources needed to have safe periods. Knowledge about period cycles, period problems and related menstrual issues is hard to come by for most Indian women. In other words, India suffers from a severe case of period poverty.
What is period poverty?
Period poverty refers to a situation in which women lack sanitary products and related essentials such as functional, sanitized toilets with clean water due to financial constraints in the area. Currently, only 36% of Indian women use sanitary pads during periods. Fundamentally, it refers to a dearth of access to the resources necessary for women to have safe periods without period problems.
The UN has recognized menstrual health as a global public health and human rights issue. Yet, 1.2 million women globally suffer from period poverty and a lack of access to basic sanitation and hygiene.
Period poverty has serious consequences for women, especially those who are financially and socially marginalised. Most commonly, menstruating girls find themselves barred from gaining education because they cannot attend schools without access to clean water, decent toilets and passable hygiene. Yet, many schools in India fail to meet these basic standards, thus depriving girls of precious time and education they require to grow into successful and independent women of today.
Menstrual Education in India
A woman’s menstrual health stands at the center of her well-being, both physical and psychological. Menstruation is an experience common to every woman in the world, and yet it is often fraught with complications.
In developing countries like India, menstruation is often an object of derision and disgust. Customs, superstitions and biases prevent women from getting the menstrual healthcare they need to have safe periods. Despite all talk of the liberated Indian woman, menstrual hygiene remains a fervent developmental issue for the vast majority of those dealing with this simple bodily function.
The onset of menstruation often brings with it, for many Indian girls, a set of cultural practices and taboos that restrict their mobility, activity and freedom. Girls are commonly isolated, restricted from eating with/cooking/living with the family, restricted from visiting temples or using flowing water sources such as rivers or streams. Girls also experience changed expectations from society, and can be treated like social pariahs during periods.
As mentioned before, a large number of mothers themselves consider menstruation a dirty topic and do not discuss its implications with their daughters. Adolescent girls are denied proper knowledge on menstrual hygiene, and they are often traumatized by their first period especially if it happens when they are out in public. Since girls largely rely on their mothers for information on period cycles, period problems and missing periods, they are basically left with no reassurance or information on having safe periods.
Outside the home, most girls do not have consistent access to education on puberty and menstruation because it is not mandated by the Government. Even when schools have such programs, the topic is considered to be so embarrassing by teachers that they often do not bother to be trained in the subject or teach it.
Lack of Menstrual Resources in India
It is impossible for girls and women to have a safe period without access to essential resources. Outside of knowledge on having safe periods, these resources include sanitary products, clean water and sanitized washrooms not only in homes but schools, workplaces and other public venues.
Unfortunately, less than half of Indian women use sanitary pads. 88% of women in India use homemade products (e.g., old cloth or rags) to manage their menstruation. Teenage girls often have to use unhygienic materials such as used rags, newspapers or even mud, which often spells doom for their still formative health and immune systems. This isn’t just an issue in India, but continues to be a global concern.
In 2016, there were 636 million Indians who lacked toilets, and more than 72% of rural people had to relieve themselves behind bushes, in fields, or by roadsides. Lack of adequate sanitation disproportionately harms women. When they are forced to use public spaces to handle menstrual needs, it is not just putting their own health at risk, but also their bodily integrity from frequent harassment and sexual violence.
Even in urban areas, the patriarchal discourse dominates women’s menstrual health. Families continue to treat period cycles as something shameful, never to be spoken of. In every city, girls still feel embarrassment when asking for sanitary napkins at medical stores. It is not uncommon for women and girls to call their period cycles an “illness” rather than a natural part of female biology.
This mentality towards menstruation makes it exceptionally difficult for Indian girls to deal with period problems, which are quite common. Every missing period is considered to be the end of the world, since girls simply do not have the knowledge that periods may be skipped due to reasons outside of possible pregnancy.
The stigma and shame attached to menstruation in India prevents millions of the country’s citizens from living free, fulfilled, mentally and physically stable lives. While the government has taken note of this and tried to solve these issues with the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme, these measures, though admirable, are not sufficient to reach 48.04% of the population. Bigger collaborations between NGOs and the government, period-awareness campaigns, and allocation of higher funds and resources are required to make menstrual health a true priority in the country’s social narrative.
In an attempt to bridge this gap, Heyday partnered with Okhai.org to donate 1500+ pads to the tribal women of Okhai by sharing and spreading the message of period poverty across all their social media channels.