Social Taboo: Costing the Health of Women

Menstruation is a natural biological process that occurs within a woman’s body as she attains adolescence. In recent years, there have been many efforts to destigmatize this process that is important for a woman’s well-being. But in this developing world and a developing country like ours, certain mindsets, social structures and customs not only lead the society to believe that menstruation is a social taboo but also prevent young girls and women from getting the necessary knowledge and menstrual healthcare that is instrumental in maintaining a positive physical and mental lifestyle.

Menstrual hygiene is an important parameter to determine healthcare standards in rural as well as urban areas. Menstrual Hygiene Management is a key aspect of the sanitation practices for India’s Swachh Bharat Mission. But have we been able to assign the appropriate resources for this basic provision to be made available to every menstruating person?
According to National Family Health Survey 4 (2015-16), 42% of women in India use sanitary napkins, 62% use cloth and 16% use locally prepared napkins. In the same survey, it was also found that only 48% of rural women use a hygienic method of menstrual protection as compared to 78% in urban areas.

Many women, especially in rural areas, use cloth, paper, leaves etc. instead of proper menstrual hygiene products. The use of these unhealthy products can cause major bacterial and fungal infections in the reproductive and urinary tract. This lack of menstrual hygiene and sanitation in rural areas can be attributed to several factors like illiteracy, poverty, lack of resources and accessibility, but above all, the social stigma associated with periods.

What is being done to improve this situation?
The government has launched several schemes to distribute sanitary pads at low or no cost. Under the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (initially implemented in 2011), rural adolescent girls are ensured supply of menstrual hygiene products and ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists) are given the responsibility to address menstrual concerns. RashtriyaKishorSwasthyaKaryakram (2014) is another scheme that focuses on adolescent health which includes menstruation. Apart from national and state programs, various NGOs are also working to create awareness and provide menstrual hygiene kits to girls and women across rural India.

However, just making these products accessible is not enough. Other sanitation facilities like continuous water supply and toilets in schools and other public places are also required. There’s a need to eradicate this indifference towards menstruation from the grassroots, i.e. we need to break the silence around the subject and facilitate discussions to sensitise people (not only women but every person). Conversations around menstruation are important in personal as well as public spheres. A majority of adolescent girls don’t even know what periods are until they experience them. This causes a lot of negative mental impact. To add to that, the way they are treated (considered impure, isolated, subjected to practices such as not visiting temples, etc.) also affects them mentally. The only solution here is for us to develop our mindset through education.
Another concern that arises is that menstrual hygiene products like sanitary pads and tampons are an environmental concern (since they’re made of plastic or other synthetic chemicals/fibres and take years to decompose). If not disposed of properly, they can be a health hazard. Until we find more sustainable solutions or alternatives to these products, we need to take responsibility and educate people on the right way to dispose of these products to minimize their impact on the environment and life.

We need to champion this cause and spread awareness. We need to understand that menstruation is not a ‘woman’s problem’ but a matter of public health concern.

Dr. Shubhangni Jain,
Assistant Professor,
School of Education

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