When I was 20, I visited the town I was born in, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, after three weeks of an intense writing workshop in Mussoorie, a hill station in the foothills of the Garhwal Himalayan range. After living in a remote, quiet city, I was excited to stay with my aunt among the hustle and bustle of the city center of Gujarat.
On the third day of my visit, I got my period.
Growing up in a Hindu household in New York, there were a few rules I blindly abided by when Mother Nature called each month: don’t go near the prayer room while menstruating, wash my hair on the fourth day, and avoid housework. Truthfully, these “rules” didn’t make much sense to me. But, it was just the way it was, and my other South Asian friends in New York had similar restrictions. However, in India, the mentality towards menstruation felt even stricter.
Menstruation in India is considered impure, embarrassing, and a “female problem.” The topic is deeply shrouded in secrecy and highly stigmatized, despite it being a normal biological function and part of one’s reproductive cycle.
I witnessed the extent to which it was viewed as a disgrace when I was ostracized to a separate annexed quarter (complete with a shower, bathroom, and kitchenette for my personal use) for four days. I was not to mingle with the rest of the house. To me, this was more humiliating than actually having my period.
For individuals in parts of India, especially in rural areas, menstruating means they are immediately excluded from normal activities like going to school and cooking. As a result, 23 million girls end up dropping out of school every year at the onset of menstruation, according to a 2019 study by the NGO Dasra.
Besides the lack of educational awareness around this topic, many do not have access to hygienic menstrual products and sanitary napkins, an issue called period poverty. Instead, these individuals often use materials like rags and torn cloth as a substitute. Not only are these items not suitable for menstruation, but when they are not properly washed or dried, they become breeding grounds for bacteria and serious infections.
The way in which cis women are treated when they have their periods is ironic. In Hinduism, women are akin to Goddess Laxmi, the deity associated with wealth, fortune, power, beauty, fertility, and prosperity. Women are worshiped for being the human manifestation of one of the prominent goddesses and theological figures, yet for 5-7 days a month, they are treated like societal outcasts and marginalized for the biological functions they have no control over.
Period stigma is not a novel topic. In fact, worldwide, individuals in many countries face discrimination for their monthly reproductive function, and India is only one of many countries that continue to uphold this taboo.
Megha Desai, President of The Desai Foundation, a nonprofit that’s been providing menstrual equity, health, and livelihood programming in rural India for 25 years, recently spoke to FEMESTELLA about this issue. Desai explained,
“The stigma surrounding periods and lack of resources for effective menstrual management is a critical issue facing women and girls in India and in rural India in particular. In rural communities, cultural taboos are more deeply rooted and services are limited. This issue obstructs women and girls’ access to good health, livelihood opportunities, and participation in normal socio-cultural activities.”
When I learned about The Desai Foundation, my first thought was empowerment. So much of what is inscribed within the mindset of the older generation, my aunt included, is the way things have been instead of the direction they will go. But the Desai Foundation is focused on creating a future for Indian cis women and girls where they are not restricted by their biological gender, but empowered by it.
Recognizing the critical importance of menstrual equity for women and general rural development, The Desai Foundation incorporates programming to curate change and is making notable impact on this front. One of their leading initiatives, started in 2017, is the Asani Sanitary Napkin Program which hires and trains cis women to manufacture and distribute retail-quality, low-cost sanitary napkins throughout their communities.
“Our solution attacks all facets of this huge issue: Stigma, Education, and Access.”
In fact, they are also creating opportunities and jobs for their community. One of their programs, the Asani Sanitary Napkin Program, employs nearly 3,000 rural women in 2,500 villages to produce 3.5 million pads. They also provide awareness sessions across 300 schools.
Sadly, period stigma won’t change overnight, but change is indeed on the horizon. The first step though is to open minds and change antiquated mentalities to adopt a new way of thinking that focuses on improving the health and agency of individuals who menstruate. Without this change, the fight for menstrual equity will never be won.