Menstruation is a biological phenomenon unique to the female gender. It is also commonly referred to as periods. From times immemorial, periods have been a cause for taboos and myths that have excluded the womenfolk from various socio-cultural events. Many societies across the geographical barriers have associated menstruation with so many illogical beliefs that it impacts the girls and women’s emotional state, mental upbringing, lifestyle and of course health and hygiene. The issue is further compounded by the poor educational spread among the womenfolk in most societies, giving rise to misconceptions about puberty, menstruation and general ignorance about
the process of reproduction.
What is menstruation?
The onset of menstruation occurs in girls between the ages of 9 and 15 years when they are said to have attained puberty. It signifies the commencement of an important part of the reproductive cycle in women when the unfertilised egg or ovum is discarded from the uterus by the body along with accompanying blood through the vagina once in approximately 28 days. Normally this oozing of blood lasts for 4 to 5 days and is therefore called periods. This normal physiological phenomenon triggers some other changes in a girl’s body that will last till she remains in an active reproductive age of women, up to 45 to 50 years, when she is faced with menopause.
During the days of her periods, a girl is subjected to exclusion from many normal activities inflicting a stigma on her, which is both social and emotional. This exclusion and the associated stigma is fraught with many implications, most of them being harmful. This is more pronounced in Indian society and other poor societies across the world, where the women have been subjected to learning deprivation, making myths and superstitions the dominant culture. To overcome the deleterious effects of ignorance that acts as a fertile breeding ground for imposition of taboo needs a sustained strategy to clear the cobwebs from the constricted minds to emerge into a
more egalitarian and healthy social order. It is important to first tackle the prevalent myths about menstruation.
Common myths about periods:
Menstruation is all about the process of ovulation followed by the missed opportunity of pregnancy. As a result, there is bleeding in the endometrial vessels and a precursor to the preparation for the next cycle. Scientifically there is no basis for the existence of myths that are a product of utter lack of knowledge coupled with superstition. The common myths associated with menstruation in India is more cultural than real. They are:
• Menstruating girls and women are impure: The origin of this myth is traced to the Vedic times. The girls and women are barred from normal household chores during this period, from which they have to be purified to return to their normality. Due to this false notion prevailing in our society, menstruating women are restricted from:
a) Entering the kitchen and cooking.
b) Entering the prayer room and offering prayers.
c) Touching holy books.
• Menstruating girls and women are unclean: It is believed that they can
contaminate food, especially sour foods as they are unclean and unhygienic
during the periods. This is reinforced by the fact that it is believed that the body emits an odour and ray that harms the food. This is total make-believe without any scientific backing.
• Menstruating girls and women are associated with evil spirits: The clothes used during the period is buried so that the spirits cannot use them. It is also believed that a menstruating woman can impose her will on her man. This is full without any basis whatsoever.
• Menstruating girls and women should avoid sour food: It is wrongly believed that ingestion of sour foods like curd and pickles stops menstrual flow. It is a notion without basis.
• Menstruating girls and women should avoid physical activity: On the contrary, physical exercises reduce premenstrual syndrome and dysmenorrheal. It causes serotonin release that makes one feel happy.
• Menstruating girls and women cause pollution: In an extreme case of false
perception, menstruating women are not allowed to bathe during periods
implying that they would pollute the water sources. This notion that excreting bodily fluids as well as the person is polluting bears no explanation.
• Menstruating girls and women cause infertility: Cows are not allowed near them as they would be rendered infertile by their touch. This is an illogical notion of curse and purity.
Impact of myths in the life of girls and women:
Among the worst impacts, in India, about 23% of girls abandon going to schools when they attain puberty. The stigma attached to menstruation further pushes the womenfolk further into the clutches of ignorance, removal of which would be the first step to counter the ill effects of unfounded myths.
Hygiene and cleanliness during menstruation:
In India, it is found that 77% of menstruating women use old cloth and 88% use other unhygienic materials for absorption of the blood. This makes them prone to serious infections, and bodily odours further give credence to the myths associated with them.
Strategies to combat menstrual related myths:
Empowering women through education and involving them in the decision-making process seems to be the best way to combat these myths. Improving personal hygiene and general sanitation with the use of sanitary napkins for periods will certainly remove many of the irrational notions associated with menstruation. Towards this end, the introduction of natural sanitary pads is an effective environment-friendly measure to cleanse the age-old belief system to effectively combat the deep-rooted social and cultural taboos related to menstruation. Sensitisation of the health workers and a
concerted effort of the Government through the National Rural health Mission since 2010 by their thrust on the improvement of hygiene of the menstruating women will certainly start to bear fruit shortly.
A sustained multi-pronged approach is the need of the day. Physical infrastructure linked with sanitation and water projects, health education and specific programs related to menstruation, is needed to address the social curse and bring the issue of menstruation into the right perspective as a normal biological process. It is for girls and women to know that menstruation is a virtue that enables them with the power of procreation.