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The Men Trying to Change the Stigma Around Menstruation in India

For many women in India, myths about periods can lead to everything from social isolation to serious reproductive health problems. But one way to get people talking about the facts of menstruation, say experts, is to bring men into the conversation.

Written by Kristi Eaton Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
According to UNICEF, only 13 percent of girls in India are aware of what menstruation is before they start their periods. Myths and taboos about periods can keep girls from school and lead to health problems. AFP/STRDEL

AHMEDABAD, India – As a boy, Tarun Bothra always wondered why his grandmother kept his mother out of the kitchen for a few days each month. He didn’t realize at the time that his mother was on her period, and the family’s strict Hindu beliefs meant she was considered too “unclean” to cook for her sons.

Now, decades later, Bothra is co-founder and chief technology officer at Saathi, a startup creating biodegradable sanitary napkins from locally sourced banana fiber. He wants to change the taboo around menstruation in India and make sanitary napkins more accessible for girls and women.

“As a country, we are doing something that our society should have done before,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Societal myths and religious beliefs about menstruation permeate Indian culture: Girls and women having their periods are often seen as impure and dirty, a belief that dates back to the Vedic times, when the oldest Hindu scriptures were written. Today, girls and women all over the country face restrictions while on their periods. According to a 2015 report in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care examining menstruation myths in India and strategies to combat them, menstruating women and girls are often not allowed to offer prayers or touch holy books.

“In India, even mere mention of the topic has been a taboo in the past, and even to this date the cultural and social influences appear to be a hurdle for advancement of knowledge on the subject,” authors Suneela Garg and Tanu Anand wrote in the paper.

Studies show that misinformation about menstruation goes on to hinder girls’ access to education and work opportunities. Many girls in India skip or drop out of school when they start their periods because they don’t know what to do. In one study from UNICEF, two-thirds of girls in grades 8 and 9 skipped school during their periods. According to UNICEF, only 13 percent of girls in India are aware of what menstruation is before they start their periods, and 75 percent of girls do not know what material to use to absorb the flow. The report from the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found that over 77 percent of menstruating girls and women use an old cloth – often reused – while 88 percent of women in India sometimes use newspapers or dried leaves for absorption. Costs for sanitary napkins and supplies can be another issue, leading to poor menstrual hygiene which increases the risk of reproductive diseases. The most severe cases can end in death.

Health advocates say that while educating women on the facts of their periods is essential, another way to change cultural attitudes toward menstruation is through men – the fathers, brothers and husbands who oftentimes only learn about menstruation once they get married.

In 2012, Tuhin Paul gave his then-girlfriend, now wife, Aditi Gupta the extra push she needed to start Menstrupedia, a comic book that teaches about puberty, healthy living and menstruation to girls aged 9 and older. Paul is a company co-founder and drew the illustrations for the comic book, which has reached more than 70,000 young girls in India so far.

“The taboo is definitely changing,” Paul says, adding that as people become more aware of the stigma surrounding menstruation they are starting to question the long-held myths. “They’re now asking whether it’s right to keep on following these rituals. And these conversations are beginning to happen more and more in families – whether they are in rural India or urban India. I think as people become more and more aware and begin questioning these myths … they will take an effort in learning the truth.”

Paul remembers that his mother never talked to him or his brother about her period or the effects it had on her body. He only learned about menstruation years later, from a biology textbook, but even then, he says, details were scarce. It wasn’t until he started dating Gupta at age 25 that he learned more.

“I was quite oblivious to this thing that was happening to each and every girl around me,” he says.

That’s not surprising to Kalyanashish Das, technical adviser for the health program at Plan India, an NGO working to improve the lives of vulnerable children and their families. Das says both sexes have little knowledge about each other’s reproductive systems and so rely mainly on hearsay or unscientific, uncorroborated advice from their peers. Research from Plan India shows that only 13 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys in India know the basic facts about reproductive organs, Das says. Schools, he says, skim over teachings about reproduction and sexual health, and those topics are rarely talked about at home.

“In my opinion, it’s imperative for men to have knowledge about menstruation and issues related to it and to understand its importance,” Das says. “This will help in … making it socially acceptable and more of a norm, rather than a taboo. We have seen a sea change in the confidence levels of women when they feel free to ask for pads and discuss the medical issues related to [their periods].”

Recently, the Indian government has stepped up efforts to educate boys on menstruation, introducing a new menstrual hygiene management curriculum in schools in December 2015 that teaches boys about what happens inside girls’ bodies.

Kanu Thakor, a 21-year-old supervisor at Saathi Pads’ factory in Ahmedabad, says he learned about menstruation from his wife a few years ago. Nobody openly discusses periods, he says, but he’s happy to talk about menstruation with anyone, even the people he works with at the factory.

“What is there to be ashamed about?” he says.

Kristi Eaton reported this story as a fellow with the International Reporting Project in India.

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