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The Breakthrough Voice 8th September, 2020

Menstruation Stigma And The Importance Of Cultural Representation.

Menstruation stigma and its various beliefs, practices and attitudes are at some point negatively impacting women’s autonomy, emotional stability and specifically their health. Stigmatizing the menstrual needs of a woman is also questioning their right to human dignity. But this is India – where a woman can marry a tree but she is prevented from expressing herself and has been made to fear revealing anything to do with her menstruation – how she feels, how she copes up with menstrual cramps and so on. Why is her menstrual health not treated as important, rather than upholding traditional cultural beliefs and stigma towards menstruation? 

But, now the topic is finally given some importance and depicted as an important issue and women and girls are able to change their habitual menstruation materials towards sanitary pads, menstrual cups, etc in rural and urban areas as well. The film industry has also contributed towards reflecting this long-existing taboo in a very realistic manner and managed to convey the importance of menstrual health and problems with menstrual stigma in society, to some extent. We will understand the significance of it in the reflection of some movies and documentaries. 

Padman

In this film directed by R. Balki, Akshay Kumar played the role of the real-life innovator of affordable sanitary pads, Arunachalam Muruganantham who saw his wife using old rags and being demoted to the balcony for five days during her periods. The next day, he brought one packet of pads and she angrily refused to use it because it would be more expensive if she and his sister would start using it. He then closely observed the materials used to manufacture that pad. He then tried making it by using some white rags and cotton and gave it to his wife, in which he failed.

Then, every month he came up with different prototypes of sanitary pads while learning from previous attempts. He tried to convince his sister to use those pads but she frowned and said hesitantly, “who gives this to his sister?” In fact, he also went to a girls’ medical college and insisted that they use it and share their feedback. They agreed but they were too shy to share their experiences. At last, he decided to experiment on himself.

Meanwhile, he was written off by his family and society. Even his wife repeatedly implored him to put an end to his idea of making an alternative cheap pad and later she left him because of all the embarrassment and humiliation she had been through. He was determined – and with breaking all stereotypes and his hard work, he finally made a usable pad with the help of a lady named Pari – at a very reasonable price and started distributing them all across the country. He later spread his distribution channel and made it easily available. It helped in imparting work to so many women with economic vulnerability. 

Period. End of Sentence.

This is an Oscar-winning documentary directed by Rayka Zehtabchi. It was first released in 2018 in the U.S. that largely aimed to inspire young women globally. It was filmed in the Kathikhera village of Hapur district situated in the outskirts of New Delhi. It demonstrated the taboo of talking about periods in rural areas. It is even considered an illness that only affects women’s bodies. One lady called it ‘bad blood’ coming out of the woman’s body.

It has shown the lengthy battle of women against the deeply rooted stigma of menstruation. For generations, sanitary pads were not accessible to these women and girls, which ultimately resulted in severe health problems and early school dropouts after the beginning of menstrual cycles. Finally, they received sanitary napkins and got a sanitary pad machine installed, which enabled the women in the community to learn its manufacturing – which they named ‘fly’. Gradually, they marketed their own pads and distributed them all over their districts.

Story of a Young Bride

This is a short film that depicted the destruction of dignity and self-respect of a bride followed by social exclusion and menstrual taboos. It showed a young bride who reached her in-laws’ house and got her periods. Then she was sent to a separate hut made outside the village. She had menstrual cramps and was screaming with pain, but was told that “she will get over it soon”. One day, two men came and imitated her husband’s voice, came inside and raped her. The next day, she was humiliated in front of the Panchayat and they raised questions on her character and upbringing. She was not even trusted by her husband, because these were the customs that everyone followed. She was boycotted from the village and told her mother to take her back. She ultimately decided to stay in that hut and spend the rest of her life there. 

These three were very impactful and insightful movies and documentaries, collectively talking about several important issues related to women’s menstrual needs, health and how menstruation is stigmatized by society. Padman has genuinely shown the breaking of taboos around menstruation. It aimed to have an open conversation about it, not only among family members but also between men and women in general. While things are gradually changing for the better – now is the time to change our menstrual health habits, change our prevailing thoughts and others’ as well. But it can only be done if we understand the problems generated by menstrual stigma. 

A Detailed List of Menstruation Myths and Stigmas

➢ Restrictions on movements 

Women are confined to limited areas during their periods because of the concept of pollution and purity narrowing down their movement. They also have to sleep on the floor in many places. If she touches anything, even by mistake, then that particular material has to be washed afterwards. In the above-mentioned documentary, it was observable how a girl was dumped into a hut outside of the village and this practice is still exercised by several communities. 

➢ Food contamination 

This myth prevails in some parts of rural India, that food cooked by menstruating women is contaminated. It is further believed that the woman is unclean and unhygienic during periods and releases some smells or rays that spoil the preserved food. She is also not allowed to pick up sour food like pickles. She is restricted from stepping into the kitchen. She is also not given food like curd, pickles, etc because it allegedly affects their menstrual flow. 

➢ Menstruation is a disease 

In many parts of the country, even in other countries, this is considered a disease, and many women believe in not taking baths while bleeding because it will have an effect on others as well. Even in the documentary Period. End of Sentence. – some boys said that “it is a disease that affects only women’s bodies”. It is also considered to make men sick – so many women do not interact with them and they are kept away from the male members of the family. 

➢ Entering temples 

To attend any religious function or entering temples for worship is the major restriction on girls in rural as well as in urban areas and it is deeply embedded in our society. They are also not allowed to touch any religious and holy books because of ‘impurities’ – according to our cultural beliefs, women are impure during their periods. 

➢ Linked with spirits 

Menstruation is also associated with traditional superstitions such as evil, ghosts, etc. As well as those cloths used during the cycle – which can be used for black magic. So, in several places, girls bury their cloth pieces or burn them, spit on the cloth pieces and then throw it in a dump yard to prevent them from being used by evil spirits or anyone who does black magic. 

➢ Menstrual festivals 

There are already several stigmas associated with the girl’s menarche. In some regions of India, some Hindu rituals signify it as a festival – celebrating and welcoming her into womanhood. It is visible in the movie Padman. It is celebrated differently at different places – in Assam, it is a ‘Tulonia Biya’, which means ‘a small wedding’ in Assam, where a girl gets married to a banana tree during the onset of her menarche. In Tamil Nadu, it is termed as ‘Manjal Neerattu Vizha’, where she gets ready on the fifth day as a goddess and she has to perform a special pooja with a doll to indicate the end of childhood. There is also a belief that the goddess in the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, menstruates every month in the month of June and this is celebrated and called ‘Ambubachi Mela’. Celebrating menstruation is a good way to make her feel special but practising a social exclusion at the same time is impacting adolescent girls who require parental love, support and care and not social distancing and isolation. 

Conclusion – Consequences of Stigma

Menstrual stigma affects the emotional stability, mentality, lifestyle and most importantly health that must be taken care of in that duration. Many women in villages are extremely rigid in exercising old traditionalist customs and end up using old clothes or ashes, dried leaves – which expose them to severe health issues. A case study in Nepal said the government has banned the custom of women living in separate huts during her periods due to a death that had occurred, but still, these practices continue because of a fear of being cursed or impeding the practice of traditional methods considered to cause harm to other family members. 

It is also linked with early marriage because menstruation is assumed to push them into womanhood and consider them ready for marriage and bearing the responsibilities of a housewife. Women cannot freely go and buy sanitary pads and cannot even throw them in the garbage whenever they want to. These stigmas hinder those who try to end menstrual stigma or even speak about them openly.


References: 


Featured images used for representational purpose only. Image source: Wikipedia, YouTube and Medium

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