Why Menstruation Matters: tackling menstrual taboos in India

Photo: Volunteers at Restless Development, in Tamil Nadu.

The Circle member Shannon Hodge volunteered in rural village Thiruvalangadu in Tamil Nadu, India, for three months with youth-led development agency Restless Development, as part of the International Citizen Service, a global volunteering programme sending UK volunteers overseas to work with in-country volunteers. In Shannon’s placement community, she volunteered with six other UK volunteers and seven Indian volunteers, working on projects including livelihoods, health and menstrual health management.

In February 2018, the world’s first feature film addressing period poverty hit screens in India —and as I was working on a menstrual health project in one of South India’s rural villages at the time, the team and I went to see it.

The film is a fictionalised account of Padma Shri awardee (the fourth highest civilian award in India) Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout from a poor family in southern India’s Tamil Nadu who revolutionised the manufacture of low-cost sanitary napkins for rural women.

Despite being an unlikely advocate for women’s menstrual health, Muruganantham’s story has opened up conversations across the country and the film’s themes are tackling many of the taboos long-engrained in Indian culture.

The film starts in 1998 when, discovering the dirty rag his wife used during her period, Muruganantham wanted to help. The rag was so dirty, he said, that he “wouldn’t even clean his scooter with it”, but to buy sanitary pads would mean sacrificing the family’s milk budget. As they couldn’t afford to buy them, he decided to make her one.

Due to not having the correct materials, it failed and despite begging his wife to try each new adaptation he made, she refused, leading him to look for other product testers.

However, due to the culture of silence and shame surrounding people openly discussing menstruation, the village found out about Muruganantham’s period project and he lost everything, including his family, home and wife.

Rather than giving up, he devoted the next twenty years of his life to inventing a simple machine to create low-cost sanitary pads. And what started as a selfless act of love for his wife’s health and safety turned into an enterprise that has helped millions of rural women in India.

Speaking to moviegoers afterwards, we heard lots of positive feedback, with both men and women saying it was: “very moving, thought-provoking and amazing to see what can come from such a small idea” and “it’s something everyone should see, as many villages are still facing these problems today”.

A woman who brought her nine-year-old daughter to the film also added: “My little girl came with me today as it’s such an important film and definitely worth seeing for girls like her. Everyone should see it”.

However, despite the feel-good ending of the film, the debilitating stigma and statistics surrounding menstrual health still exist today.

What is —and should be seen as— a normal biological process is viewed as impure. In fact, 70% of Indian mothers consider menstruation “dirty”— further perpetuating the culture of silence surrounding periods.

This is demonstrated in the film when Padman’s wife says: “For a woman, there is no bigger disease than shame”, as she admits that her husband openly talking about, making, and testing pads is worse than her getting a urinary tract infection from using her dirty cloth.

Like in the film, many women are still subjected to social, religious and cultural restrictions during their periods, which we learned more about when we held a female-only menstrual health management (MHM) session, made up of national and international volunteers.

We learned that activities such as worshipping in the temple, cooking, touching the water supply or even touching other people are forbidden for some girls during their periods. In many cases, girls are also made to eat separate meals and, though not as common today, some are made to sleep outside of the home in what are known as “menstruation huts”.

We also were told about the “entering into womanhood” ceremony which is held for some girls when they first start their period, to let the village know that they are “ready for marriage”. This is also something demonstrated in the film and something that I witnessed being advertised in the village where I stayed.

Once a girl has gone through the ceremony and starts having regular periods, she may also face difficulties at school gaining access to safe menstrual hygiene products and clean toilet and changing facilities.

In a study conducted by sexual and reproductive health and rights organisation, Rutgers, it was found that in rural India, 23% of girls listed menstruation as the chief reason for dropping out of school. And as many as 28% of them said they do not go to school during their period because they lack clean and affordable protection.

Compounded by the already high cost of pads, proper menstrual care remains out of reach for many rural women and girls in India. Without access to a basic cotton pad, many resort not only to rags but in some cases ash, newspaper and leaves.

When surveying women in the village of Thiruvalangadu, we had an aim to tackle the culture of silence around menstrual health management and research into ideas for a future income generation project.

Our findings showed that 25% of the women surveyed did not have access to sanitary pads, and despite the government having a scheme to provide free pads to girls between the ages of 10-19 in Tamil Nadu, we also found that 91% of women surveyed were offered no free menstrual hygiene products —and of the 9% who were, they weren’t given enough to see them through their monthly cycle.

Because of this, around two thirds of girls in India only change their menstrual cloths once daily. Women and girls using poor menstrual hygiene practices are 70% more likely to get a reproductive tract infection.

As part of our menstrual health management sessions at schools in the community, the team explained not only the biological process to young girls, but also worked with them to bust the myths surrounding periods and how they can manage their time of the month in the safest possible way —by really “pushing the pad” as a go-to product.

We also made the sessions a safe space where girls could ask questions anonymously throughout by posting them in a box and we would pick them out and answer them at the end of each session.

Working on menstrual health management projects with women and girls during my time in India really led me to look at how I can help within my own community, as period poverty is not only an issue overseas. In fact, in statistics published by Plan International, 1 in 10 girls have been unable to afford sanitary wear in the UK and 12% have had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues.

Since returning, I have made it my mission to find projects preventing period poverty in the UK —including The Red Box Project, which provides free sanitary wear in schools nationwide; Bloody Good Period, which gives menstrual supplies to asylum seekers, refugees and those who can’t afford them in the UK, and Binti International, which has a mission to provide menstrual dignity to all girls, working on projects in India, Kenya, Swaziland, the US and here in the UK.

I’ve also located a local community project called Helping Homeless Women North East, where I’ve helped pack sanitary care packages which are handed out in homeless hostels and refuges across Newcastle.

If you don’t have time to volunteer but would like to put some money towards a cause preventing period poverty, then listen up… The incredible ladies at The Music Circle are raising funds for Irise International —an organisation educating girls on menstrual and reproductive health and making sanitary products available and affordable in their communities. Click here to learn more about the project and donate.

As Padman himself said: “Woman strong, mother strong, sister strong —then whole country strong”.

Written by @shanhodge.
Shannon Hodge is a Journalism graduate and a member of The Circle.

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