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Menstrual health in rural areas: Whitewashing the usage of sanitary napkins as the ultimate solution

Menstrual health is considered a big taboo in India even in the 21st century. In rural India, menstruation is caught in the throes of ignorance and stigma. Even in urban India, menstruation is till date treated as a hush-hush topic by guardians and caregivers. Hence young children are introduced early on to incorrect concepts about this physical phenomenon that requires special care and attention. We divide our article into two parts; rural and urban India. In this part, we concentrate on rural India with regard to the specific issue of menstrual health.

The topic of menstruation brings about a variety of reactions among women. As diverse Western modes of thought have reached urban India, menstruation in recent times is a much-heated topic of discussion where not only the ones with uteruses but even the ones without seem to have an opinion about it. For urban Indian women menstruation oftentimes sparks severe to moderate and mostly negative reaction. However, the phenomenon cannot be seen through the same lens for rural inhabitants.  Rural India comprises of several varied layers of exposure to modernity or ideological integration with urbanisation. Modernity in India is a conflicted zone given our century-old history of colonisation. Hence oftentimes indigenous ways of dealing with monthly periods have been appropriated and often in a negative angle through the lens of westernisation.

One of such myths pertains to the usage of ‘unhygienic’ sanitary products. Modern advertisement campaigns have whitewashed the idea of sanitary napkins commonly referred to as ‘pads’ in a completely positive light. Pads are projected as the ultimate solution to comfortable periods, which is in fact, far from the truth.  Another misconception peddled by ad campaigns is that girls drop out of schools because of the lack of sanitary pads. However, there isn’t any substantial research on how the reverse works, i.e how providing subsidised or free pads to young girls helps better their performance or attendance. In fact ground-level research shows that the main problem posed by periods is discomfort, cramps or lack of clean toilets or changing places. This dispels the myth of inaccessibility of pads or unaffordability of pads in rural areas being the major reason for lesser usage in rural areas. Though it is true that pads are quite expensive to be a convenient medium of regular usage, several NGO or government run programmes carry on the free or subsidised distribution of pads in rural areas. These programmes, however, fall flat due to insufficient funding and are financially untenable for the government and provide inadequate number of pads to girls.

Rural women resort to a variety of traditional technique that work for the specific conditions of living they have to thrive in. A most popular one is the usage of cotton cloths, washing and reusing them for further usage. There is a very popular misconception that cloth is unsanitary or unhygienic for use. This is a totally mistaken idea since the undergarments women use are also made of cotton, cloth can be washed and reused several times and it is has been a traditional means of tackling periods for Indian women over years. The problem with cloth is the lack of cleaning and drying spaces in the airy and well lit outdoors oftentimes as a result of stigmatisation. Pads in fact are often very cumbersome with regard to disposal, discomfort of wearing and are even causes of infection due to prolonged periods of wearing. A survey carried out by a women’s health organisation Mytrispeaks provides substantive data stating that menstrual disorders are far higher in developed countries than in developing ones. Data from its survey further went on to say that absenteeism in schools on period days is almost similar for developing countries as it is for developed countries and can’t be statistically traced to the lack of availability of pads or sanitary napkins in the latter as media representations make us believe.

In very remote rural belts, women often pad their underwear with ash or sand to deal with menstrual flow. The solution to rural Indian’s menstrual problem depends to a great extent on clean and enough toilets, destigmatisation and availability of hygienic water resource. In several villages women till date have to stay isolated on their days of periods and stay in unsanitary conditions. Structural changes with infrastructure are largely related to menstrual problems faced by women.

A very good solution to rural India’s period problem would be to make the concept of menstrual cup acceptable. Stigma, lack of awareness, familiarity with previous techniques used and heavily false ideas surrounding the concept of virginity makes it difficult for the use of menstrual cups seem like an acceptable solution. These cultural reasons become severe impediments to the embracing of internal devices like menstrual cups for usage. However certain behavioural experiments conducted have shown that hope isn’t dim for women as many have been willing to embrace cups.

Sanitary napkins can be as unhygienic, perilous to the environment and infection-causing as other traditional ethnic practices. The need of the hour is more women educators talking about period problems and familiarising environment and pocket-friendly options to the vast majority of rural women today.

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