Throughout India, women often are restricted from entering places of worship, going to school and continuing their regular routines while they are menstruating. Many of these restrictions have been implemented and maintained because of superstitions and myths that a woman is dirty or impure when she is menstruating.
Consider my recent experience while in Mumbai to work on my capstone research project.
Both of my parents grew up in Mumbai and the majority of my extended family still lives here. In my spare time, I have been playing cards, cooking, eating and shopping with my grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins. When we were planning a trip to the temple, my aunt asked me, “Are you on time?” I told her I didn’t know what she meant. Then she asked, “Is your mother-in-law here this week?” Again, very confused, I told her I had no idea what she meant. Then she whispered in my ear, “Are you on your period?”
It’s not uncommon for women to talk about menstruation with code words, considering the taboo subject and the restrictions placed on girls and women when they are menstruating. In response to my aunt’s question, I responded in a normal volume, “No I am not on my period, but even if I was, I would still come to the temple.” I didn’t get in trouble, nor was I told that it was bad to go to the temple while I’m menstruating. My statement was accepted, and we moved on. However, not all responses like mine are met with such ease and acceptance.
This idea that menstruation needs to be talked about secretly or in code is part of the ideology that menstruation is something to be ashamed of. The idea is prevalent among communities of all socioeconomic statuses, education levels and castes. Part of the reason the myths surrounding menstruation are sustained is that menstruation is such a taboo topic to discuss. Few people talk about it openly and many girls and boys are not encouraged to ask questions.
Recently, Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28th served as a reminder of the need to increase education among girls, boys, parents and communities to combat stigma and provide sanitary infrastructure and menstrual hygiene products to girls and women in urban and rural settings.
Various global organizations and local groups have been providing education to male and female adolescents, parents and community members to debunk the superstitions and emphasize the importance of menstrual hygiene management. My capstone research project is in partnership with the NGO Adolescent Health Champions in Mumbai, India. The organization, through its foundational program called Girls Health Champions, works to increase adolescent girls’ knowledge about health and social well-being by teaching a comprehensive health education curriculum that covers topics such as nutrition, mental health, substance use, violence, sexual and reproductive health, gender and sexuality to students attending schools throughout Mumbai.
While implementing the girls’ program, the founders of the organization recognized that boys also lacked adequate health education. For this reason, Adolescent Health Champions created a parallel program for boys. The boys’ and girls’ curricula cover the same topics, including menstruation. Providing the same comprehensive health education curriculum to both the boys and the girls is a critical step towards achieving gender equality and empowering boys and men to advocate for their female peers. My project is an evaluation study of the pilot implementation of the boys’ program in a school located in Mumbai.
During my time here in Mumbai, I have learned how important it is not only to provide girls with information about their health and safe menstrual hygiene management practices, but also to improve the environment that surrounds them, such as providing low-cost sanitary napkins and places to dispose of them. Other improvements could include increasing knowledge of the biological process of menstruation among family members, imposing penalties for pulling girls out of school because of menstruation, and lifting restrictions imposed by places of worship for girls who are menstruating.
In order to improve menstrual hygiene management in India, a holistic approach is necessary. International agencies, policy makers, actors, teachers, communities, and men and women throughout the country continue to advocate for girls’ and women’s health. This involvement from all levels of society is critical in order for all girls and women to no longer believe that they are dirty when a natural and healthy biological process occurs each month.