Time to talk, period

Published - January 06, 2019 12:02 am IST

Discussion of menstruation is largely taboo in our society. The stigma around it has resulted in a lack of information being shared between generations, particularly around the basic dos and don’ts when a girl begins her period. Research shows that at least 71% of girls in India do not know anything about menstruation before their first period.

One might say, so what? What is the need for them to know if their mothers and grandmothers never did? It is, in fact, crucial for girls to learn about the menstrual cycle. The lack of awareness around her first period can put a young girl, sometimes as young as 10, through mental trauma and fear over what is happening to her, combined with is a sense of shame because of the age-old stigma around a menstruating woman. A girl often has to hide the fact from family members, friends, teachers and others.

I have often been asked about the need for a girl to talk to more people or speak about the subject openly. I would respond with a simple question: What is the need to make a girl feel inadequate because of her gender or biology? Why should we subject a young mind to the mental turbulence of dealing with physical change and a monthly occurrence which she cannot talk about, to the extent that she has to hide things such as the cloth that she is using?

Such restrictive views and practices not only expose young girls to infections but also create a feeling of inadequacy. A young girl entering a crucial stage of her life is often made to feel that she is inferior in the family. There are numerous instances of girls not being allowed to participate in family celebrations, functions, prayers, and, sometimes, attend school.

The statistics are unknown, but there are stories of girls dropping out of school in semi-urban and rural areas once they start menstruating. This is not only driven by a lack of appropriate toilet and sanitation facilities in schools, which governments and non-governmental organisations have been actively trying to fix, but also the outdated social practice of ‘protecting’ an adolescent girl by confinement, until she gets married.

In rural India, approximately 80% of girls miss school for three to four days a month, coinciding with the start of menstruation. A cloth is prone to leakage and staining and does not keep a girl comfortable or safe from infection during those days. The reason for women and girls not possessing sanitary napkins is driven by various factors, affordability being one. However, a lot of cultural factors work against girls/women accessing sanitary napkins, which stops a family from spending ₹30 on an average for a growing girl, or a woman in the family — it is not seen as a priority.

Foremost is the issue of denial. Women have been programmed not to discuss the topic openly, with most preferring to suffer in isolation and skip work or school. Then comes the distinct lack of awareness of better hygiene options, including sanitary napkins. Older women or friends may advise against it, calling it an avoidable expense or even a sin. Quite a few grocery outlets refuse to “touch” and stock sanitary napkins. There is also the issue of disposal.

We need to educate girls and women about the need for clean, dry menstrual hygiene products and the pitfalls of wrong methods. A high incidence of cervical cancer is reportedly linked to infections from soiled and damp cloth. A small amount of ₹25-₹30 for sanitary napkins will not only prevent infections but also a allow a girl to live her life and ensure a woman does not lose two-three days of her livelihood each month.

There is a strong need for each of us to openly talk about periods. Let’s talk periods and no longer stay silent.

Richa Singh is CEO, Niine Sanitary Napkins

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