Author- Shambhavi Shukla
Editor- Navya Om Agnihotri
What is the first thing you do when you realize you are on your periods? Look for a pad/tampon/cup and head to a washroom, I am sure? Now imagine you realize that you have started bleeding, but you do not have any menstrual product at your disposal.
When you ask your mother, she hands you a white cloth. The cloth puzzles you, but you think, "Oh well, something is better than nothing." Confused, you start looking for a clean toilet nearby. You do find a washroom, but calling it clean would be like complimenting the Deonar dumping ground.
Sound like a nightmare, doesn't it? Sadly, about 70% of Indian women are living in this nightmare.
Period poverty is the lack of basic amenities such as lack of access to clean toilets and menstrual education, the widely prevalent social stigma, and the inability to afford sanitary products such as pads. With 800 million women and girls menstruating every day, this is a health crisis that affects half of the universal population. However, in India, the problem is particularly acute, where just 42% of women have access to sanitary pads.
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More than a third of the girls in South Asia miss school during their periods, according to a report published by UNICEF and WaterAid around 2017. Another statement published by WHO states that most of the schools in the South Asian region did not meet the standard of having one toilet per 25 girls. Hence, period poverty is not a new concept. This crisis has been in existence for several years, and yet not much has changed. One of the biggest reasons for that is the widespread ignorance about this issue. Some other causes could be:
Stigmas and Taboos Surrounding Menstruation
In India, where periods have long been taboo and considered impure, discrimination against menstrual women is pervasive. They are frequently shunned from social and religious gatherings, denied access to temples and shrines, and even barred from kitchens. According to one study, 71% of adolescent girls in India are uninformed of menstruation until they experience it firsthand due to a lack of discussion regarding the topic.
Parents rarely prepare their daughters for something they know will happen, because as per them, conversations regarding menstruation are shameful. And this lack of preparation leads to a great deal of avoidable dread and anxiety. Due to the stigma revolving around the topic, people are often denied basic sanitary amenities.
Access to Menstrual Products
Furthermore, another significant concern is the difficulty in accessing sanitary products. After months of campaigning by activists that menstrual hygiene supplies are not a luxury and periods are not something a woman can just avoid, the Government of India abolished a 12% tax on menstrual items in 2018. However, tax exemption is merely the first step in a much longer process of making menstrual health and cleanliness a reality for all women in the country.
Only 36% of 355 million menstruating people of India use sanitary napkins, according to one survey. All the remaining females utilize old rags, husk, ash, leaves, mud, soil, and other potentially life-threatening items to manage their flow. In India, millions of families are still unable to afford sanitary products. On average, a person in India needs 300 rupees for menstrual products each month. Hence for the families belonging to the lower socio-economic strata of the country, it is a choice to either buy pads for their respective family members or buy food for the entire family.
Deteriorating Hygiene Standards
As per a 2014 research conducted by Dasra (a charity working for the issues relating to adolescent health), as many as 23 million girls drop out from their schools annually once they reach menarche. One of the primary reasons for this is the lack of clean toilets and the unavailability of sanitary products in schools.
Apart from young girls, the women belonging to rural areas also face numerous issues. For them, menstrual hygiene is an alien topic that they have never heard of or even thought about; lack of clean toilets in villages is a huge contributor to this. Shortage of menstrual products, or insufficient awareness regarding the same, proves to be a health hazard for rural women. These women resort to using and reusing old clothes or rags during their periods, which exposes them to many infections, UTIs, etc. According to a report, about 70% of the reproductive diseases in India are a result of neglected menstrual hygiene.
A 2014 UNICEF research found that 79% of girls and women belonging to Tamil Nadu were uninformed of menstrual hygiene standards. This same rate was 66% in Uttar Pradesh, 56% in Rajasthan, and 51% in West Bengal. If both men and women get educated about periods, their attitudes toward them will alter, which will benefit everyone. Some Indian communities have elected officials to teach girls about menstruation and sex. But even these officials are often unable to do so since they lack basic understanding and information on the topic due to the numerous taboos surrounding it.
Improper Medical Care
It is a known fact that the health care facilities in the rural parts of India are almost as good as non-existent. A person has to travel to a city for treatment of any health-related disorder or condition. In these situations, the menstrual health of people takes a back seat.
Period complications like heavy bleeding, cramps, PCOD, PCOS, PMDD, etc., are entirely ignored. Menstruating people practice some home remedies to cure their discomfort, even when they require immediate medical attention. In addition to such dire situations, women are always hesitant to speak up about any issues they might be facing, especially if it's about their cycles. These factors often prove to be fatal for rural women.
Period poverty is a real issue faced by more than half the menstruating population of India. Reducing the taxes on sanitary products does not guarantee alleviation of conditions faced by these people. Sanitary products are still a luxury item for the people belonging to the lower class of the society, making it impossible for them to practice menstrual hygiene even if they wanted to.
The lack of awareness about menstruation in our society is a significant contributor to the poor health of most of the menstruating population. It is the need of the hour to make it a part of school curriculums and teach children about it without any hesitation. Organizing a workshop for girls in school is not enough. We need to educate people belonging to all genders, ages, and classes of society.