World Menstrual Hygiene Day is being celebrated for the fourth year now on May 28, with more than 400 partner-organisations working towards creating awareness on menstrual hygiene management (MHM), as part of the initiative by WASH United (water, sanitation, hygiene).
In recent years, there has been active efforts by individuals and organisations to promote awareness regarding menstrual hygiene through building toilets, providing low cost pads and appropriate disposal facilities to women who previously did not have access to them. For example, state governments of Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, provide free sanitary napkins to government schools in a bid to prevent girls from missing classes on account of menstruation.
Studies by UNICEF show that 28% of female students do not attend school when on their period due to the unavailability of hygienic absorbent materials. This in turn results in them ultimately dropping out of school. Yash Mehrotra, co-founder of Shebleeds says, “Girls staying out of schools, and eventually dropping out leads to them being trapped in child marriages, child labour, and may be even trafficking. By simultaneously implementing a period friendly policy, distributing hygiene products and creating awareness, it is possible to tackle such problems.” Initiatives like the celebration of the World Menstrual Hygiene Day is a definitive step towards bringing such issues into mainstream spotlight.
Integration of issues like menstrual hygiene into popular culture gives it exposure and lets it resonate with a wider audience. For example, the Bollywood movie PadMan, helmed by a mainstream actor like Akshay Kumar drew very positive reactions, especially in a country like India where discussing menstruation is considered a taboo. In a move to promote the film, its makers created #PadmanChallenge, which entailed celebrities posing with menstrual pads on social media to dispel the stigma surrounding it. The reaction to this initiative was a mixed one.
Dilip Cherian, image guru and consulting partner of Perfect Relations notes, “PadMan started conversations on social media and in real time. The use of a bankable bonafide star like Akshay Kumar and endorsements from Bollywood celebs certainly helped spread awareness about menstruation, a topic rarely discussed in public (or even privately) in the country. For once, it was not about the movie’s box-office collections but about our orthodox society and the stigma about women and their bodies.”
On the other hand, there are many who questioned the purpose of this campaign; one among them being Nikita Azad who came into the spotlight in 2015 when she spearheaded the ‘Happy to bleed’ campaign in response to a temple board official’s statement justifying the ban on women of menstruating ages from entering Sabarimala temple. In her opinion it was a promotional blitzkrieg. “I definitely view it as a promotional stunt that reached out to limited audience already using and having access to sanitary napkins. It did not really provide the means of breaking the stigma to common women who can’t use Facebook or Twitter.” PadMan challenge or not, it cannot be denied that India is finally making a move towards normalising menstruation as a bodily function and rid itself of its undeserved taboo.
While it is a start, India still has a long way to go in terms of creating awareness about menstrual hygiene and creating resources and facilities. Initiatives of individuals like Arunachalam Muruganantham (the real life PadMan) and organisations like Mukti Project, Sukhibhava has resulted in scores of girls across several villages in India gain access to affordable sanitary products and disposal units. Dilip Kumar Pattubala, co-founder and CEO of Sukhibhava, a Bengaluru based NGO that lays emphasis on female empowerment through menstrual hygiene practices says, “There has definitely been an increase in the wave of menstrual hygiene awareness across India. But at the grass root level, ignorance still seems to prevail. Through our questionnaires filled in by girls and women in villages we have worked in, we saw that around 70-75% of them were not aware of the functions of their reproductive organs or its significance. So there is a need to create awareness among them from scratch.” He also makes an interesting observation about the current scenario. “At present, there seems to be a higher emphasis on the fact that women of low income groups do not have access to menstrual hygiene products than creating awareness as a matter of urgency.”
At the same time, there needs to be caution about the kind of hygiene products made accessible to women. Nikita continues, “Establishing sanitary napkins as the only solution has grave consequences for women’s menstrual health and the environment as napkins contain harmful toxins. I think the process of destigmatisation should encompass spreading awareness about alternative and healthy menstrual hygiene products so that a campaign can prevent women’s health and bodies from being commoditised and doesn’t become another marketable venture for napkin manufacturers.” These healthier and more environment-friendly alternatives include menstrual cups, washable and/or biodegradable sanitary pads.
It is evident by now that the way to go is to establish a steady system that creates awareness among women for the need for menstrual hygiene while simultaneously provide affordable hygiene products which would in turn enable the practice of hygienic management of menstruation. But there is definitive proof of gradual change; take the case of Preetha Mohan. A native of Ottapalam in Kerala, she is the mother of a 16-year-old daughter. Talking of the differences between the times she was a teenager and now, she concedes, “When I got my periods, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was scared to talk about it with anyone but finally informed my mom about it. My daughter on the other hand, was well prepared to face it because of the awareness created about it. In our times, sanitary pads were not heard of and a piece of cloth was generally used. Needless to mention, it was a difficult phase. We were not allowed to participate in any household activity nor could we play. Things have changed now and it is welcoming to note the changes that have followed with time.”
On this note, let us all do our part by creating awareness on public platforms, perhaps take some time out of our daily lives to help grass root organisations in their mission. You could check out the official website of World Menstrual Hygiene Day to find out how you can be part of this much needed initiative.