“Period” of Change: Acknowledging the Right to Menstrual Health

By Tanya Chandra, Founder, LexQuest Foundation.

It can’t be stressed enough that menstruation is a mere biological phenomenon, so why does it bother a society so much that we need policies for menstruating women? To answer the aforementioned, one has to acknowledge the closely knit cultural and social spaces along with the psycho-social contexts in which women attain puberty and go on to menstruate for the better part of their teenage, adolescence and adult lives.

In India’s patriarchal family structures that are born out of deeply entrenched notions of a traditionalist society of the absolute kind, menstruation is expected to be a topic best avoided and hence, as many would concede, it remains a highly private affair and so it occurs, in hushed up corners of every household, but is it a secret well kept? In a country where only 12% women use sanitary napkins and among the rest, poor menstrual hygiene causes fungal infections, Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) and Urinary Tract Infection (UTI), menstruation is definitely not an affair we can afford to conceal.  

While taboos attached to women’s monthly period induce a hostile environment for them to voice their problems, the apathy attached to the potential physiological, logistical and economical issues that accompany a female’s menstrual cycle renders this space so hopeless that women are compelled to feel hesitant, embarrassed and at times, even apologetic about something as obvious as their monthly period.

Some argue that a monthly cycle is such a regular occurence that women need no special provisions to facilitate this reality and that any policies that demand and aspire to attain period sensitive work environment and period friendly public spaces are in fact trying to aggravate an ordinary biological process that all women are conveniently used to. Ironically then, in India, 88% of women resort to unsanitized cloth, ash and husk sand to soak period blood, thereby causing severe reproductive health problems apart from leaving them vulnerable to infertility; 23% young girls drop out of schools due to poorly functional or non-existent toilets; one of every two women suffer from some form of anaemia due to poor health and nutrition; ….

Others believe that urban India provides a better working environment for women to prosper, yet we never shy away from labelling women as the weaker sex because of their biology to bleed and hence patronizing “gestures of consideration” for what should in fact be a matter concerning women’s rights is a widely acceptable and prevalent practice in all working quarters. So if someone is not preaching a woman about strength, dignity, independence and self sufficiency, they are condescending them for expecting to avail a period leave. This is when women are a miniscule minority of the organized sector’s workforce and hence by any stretch of imagination, there will only be a handful of them who are fortunate enough to land up in a workplace that recognizes “Period Leave” as a part of its policy and even these places will not be the most period friendly working spaces.

But why do we need period friendly spaces at all? A bleeding vagina is inevitably accompanied by myriad other physical discomforts, so while trying to cope with one’s body, women have to  constantly fret over replacing a soiled sanitary pad/tampon/menstrual cup irrespective of where they are, as India has no provisions for publicly available and freely accessible sanitary pads/tampons/menstrual cups or any public toilets that are equipped enough to facilitate a menstruating woman’s need for clean and sanitized spaces.

Moreover, period health and hygiene is an issue that has been undermined for a very long time and hence most women in India’s urban, rural, rich as well as poor quarters know very little about how to provide their bodies the most suitable conditions to facilitate a healthy menstrual cycle and hence we necessarily need to start enabling our women to attain the right to menstrual health because concerns surrounding women’s menstrual health have to be a public affair before healthy menstrual cycle can be women’s private affair. Let’s probe “the one that cannot be named” and let “women’s issues” call for both women and men to acknowledge and aspire for sustaining solutions and resolutions.