It is often thought that women in rural areas are uneducated about their menstrual cycles and their methods of handling their monthly bleeding is unsophisticated, crude and unsanitary compared to those of women in urban areas. Menstrual health is not only about access to safe products to capture period blood but also the infrastructure to dispose of those products, access to functioning, private bathrooms, running water, health care clinics, education and information provided to women by schools, organizations and government programs.
India today has a stark divide between rural and urban areas. According to the most recent Indian government census, in 2011 69 percent of Indians lived in rural and farmland areas while 31 percent lived in urban and metropolitan areas. Despite more Indians living in rural parts of the country, those communities do not have adequate resources compared to urban centers. Most urban women use sanitary napkins or pads to capture their period blood while majority of women from rural areas use scraps of cloth or the petticoat of their saris to control their bleeding. However, these seemingly rudimentary methods of dealing with periods that the rural women employ better fit their everyday reality. Considering the same 2011 government census that states that 89 percent of rural Indian homes do not have private bathrooms, criticizing women in rural areas who do not wear pads or more “hygienic” alternatives is disregarding their circumstances.
Many rural women in India work in the fields for multiple hours a day where there are no bathrooms or places they can safely change and discard their pads, which are supposed to be changed and replaced every four to six hours. Women are also faced with the task of disposing these pads in communities where there are no safe, waste disposal systems or trash cans. Changing pads in open fields is uncomfortable and can cause harm to someone’s dignity. Additionally, the prolonged use of the pad builds up moisture and blood throughout the day and if left unchanged, it can lead to a potential vaginal infection. Rural women therefore have adapted to use the petticoat of their saris that they tie or pieces of cloth to catch their blood. These methods have a greater surface area than a pad and reduce the risk of vaginal infections, meaning that these women have used an alternative to better suit their working and living situations.
Hygiene products like pads are convenient for urban women who have access to bathrooms, running water and sites to dispose of their pads while rural women do not have these resources. Pads or hygiene products only fulfill their purpose of making periods less stressful for women when they are supplemented and supported by surrounding infrastructure such as private bathrooms and running water. Rural womens’ seemingly unhygienic practices in reality are a better way of dealing with their period considering due to their lack of resources and their circumstances. The issue of equitable menstrual health in India expands beyond product access and includes economic circumstance and long standing cultural belief.
In India, culture is a driving force behind what people believe and how they behave. Periods in India are celebrated because they mark the beginning of a girl’s womanhood, but also advertise her of marriageable and childbearing age. Every period after the first becomes a very private, personal matter for most Indian women – urban or rural. Many women, on a psychological and emotional level, regard their periods as shameful because of how men perceive them. India is undoubtedly a patriarchal society that places the word of men and their actions on pedestals. Women are defined in every aspect from marriage and status in the context of men, so naturally their bodies and periods are defined by men in religious and social contexts.
Intercourse with a menstruating woman is seen as unholy and impure. Many women refuse to buy pads from male shop owners in fear of the shame and embarrassment. Traditionally, women in Hindu culture are forbidden from stepping foot in temples and participating in religious ceremonies, and Muslim women are forbidden from giving namaz or daily prayer when menstruating. Some women are barred from cooking or entering the kitchen in fear of spoiling the food. Almost 70 percent of girls from India’s largest state of Maharashtra miss school while on their periods because they are not able to manage their periods with dignity outside of their homes. Schools may not have safe, private bathrooms, clean water or ways to discreetly dispose of products that cause feelings of humiliation in menstruating girls. These feelings of shame stem from cultural and societal notions of periods as impure that have been passed down and warped generationally from mother to daughter and mother-in-law to daughter-in-law. The barring of women from religious, educational and social activities has been justified by the need for rest and so that a woman can regain her “balance” during the “imbalance” of her period.
Both men and women are the culprits for perpetrating negative beliefs about menstruation because widespread, accurate knowledge is not commonly taught in families or in school. The only way to undercut these arbitrary and wrong assumptions of the impurity of menstruation is through education. No woman should feel shameful of a natural bodily process that is part of her existence. Women should be able to fully function in society and the premise of a period should not be allowed to put a pause on a woman’s life. It is a basic right that all women, in India or any other country, should enjoy freely and not be disadvantaged by her body or the natural processes that occur because of it.
Indian schools have played a contradictory role in menstrual health. Government schools give out menstrual products and offer an incinerator to help female students dispose of their used products safely; however, the public education system offers no teaching or permanent curriculum on menstruation or sex education to male or female students. Education should not just focus on the biological or anatomical mechanics of sexual intercourse and menstruation but also the emotional wellness and psychological factors of these processes as well. Widespread education gives girls and women information on their choices of product and a scientific and objective. Male students learn to handle the subject with more empathy, sensitivity and are able to understand the experiences of the other half of the population. Some transgender men and non-binary people experience periods as well. Menstruation is not purely a defining characteristic of all females, and dispelling the belief that what happens to a woman is a woman’s issue and separate from a man’s concern starts with inclusive teaching for all students in school.
Mekhala Mantravadi is a junior at Horace Mann School in the Bronx. She loves to write plays, fiction, and poetry, and also enjoys learning about gender, culture and identity.