Menstruation is a natural and essential part of a woman’s reproductive cycle. Without it, men, boys, women, girls would not exist. Yet, it is surrounded by myths, misconceptions and taboo.
Stigma related to menstruation reinforces discrimination and perpetuates gender inequalities. And while we know that these attitudes still prevail in some homes and communities, it is shocking to learn that educational institutions and leaders – those that are expected to bearers of light – still adopt extreme forms of shaming and blaming.
A United Nations Population Fund-commissioned photo essay in 2017 on girls’ experiences around menarche, the first occurrence of menstruation, revealed harmful practices girls are subjected to in many parts of India: Prohibition from entering the kitchen or the prayer room, being made to stay outside the house, being forced to eat in separate utensils, or not being allowed to touch certain kinds of food because they could get spoilt. These social norms isolate girls from friends and family, in turn impacting their reproductive and mental health.
Girls start considering themselves to be “impure” and “unclean” during their periods. And their trauma doesn’t end there: inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, affordable menstrual management means, and privacy, all serve to reinforce the stigma. They experience shame, fear and embarrassment. And as they grow up to be women, they internalise these gender inequitable values.
Adding to their woes, in some parts of world, including South Asia, puberty and especially menarche, are considered to signal that girls are ready for marriage and motherhood. In such contexts, parents may view child and early marriages as viable options to control girls’ sexuality or to protect against fears related to the “family’s honour”.
In 1994, during the landmark International Conference on Population and Development, and then again in 2019 during the Nairobi Summit to mark ICPD@25, the right to quality sexual and reproductive health services was squarely confirmed as pivotal to women and girls’ participation in family, community and national processes, as well as to the attainment of overall development goals.
The development goals include equal opportunity to education for girls and boys, by ensuring access to clean water and sanitation, medication to treat menstruation-related pain, and creation of safe spaces for girls.
If girls are to miss five days of school every month, how will countries attain that goal? And if women are to be confined during those five days, how will they participate in the labour market, politics, or any decision-making activity in their community?
The good news, however, is that today, India has several policies in place that address awareness about menstruation and menstrual hygiene. Many states have adopted and integrated life skills that include comprehensive sexuality education into their lower- and upper- secondary school curricula. Many civil society organisations promote girls’ education and work with parents and communities to break these taboos.
Thanks to these initiatives, the discomfort around menstruation and menstrual hygiene is beginning to gradually fade. It is now widely accepted that girls’ and women’s access to effective means of managing menstrual hygiene is strictly linked to realising their human dignity.
We must join efforts to break these taboos that have been built over centuries and are ingrained in people’s minds. Until we allow young girls to feel “normal” about menstruating, the best-intentioned policies will fall short of attaining the desired goals of equal participation of women and men.
Girls and women menstruate. Period.
Argentina Matavel Piccin is the India Representative at United Nations Population Fund or UNFPA.