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Eradicating the taboo around menstruation

NK

Nitya Krishnan

Aug 31, 2020

With inputs and data from Pooja Venkataramani

I wonder how many people saw this topic and decided to ignore it. How many people felt vaguely or extremely uncomfortable at the very mention of the topic. How many decided to click on this article and read it. I applaud those who are reading this - and it is not just because I am glad that someone is reading my work.

Why is menstruation so hush-hush in modern society?

Menstruation is not something that is talked about in ‘refined’ or ‘proper’ society. It is hidden in quick, one-word conversations between a mother and daughter or talked about clinically in a biology lesson. We are to pretend that it doesn’t exist. We hide our sanitary napkins in the far reaches of our bags and flush with embarrassment if it is discovered as though it is something to be ashamed of. When learning about periods, back in fifth grade, one of my classmates cried over the distress and embarrassment of having the boys of our class listen to the conversation.

I would say that I am lucky. I have a class who, after the fifth-grade meltdown, are comfortable talking about their experiences with periods. In fact, my mother was pleasantly surprised to know that we have little inhibition when it comes to talking about this ‘scandalous’ topic amongst ourselves, saying that she hadn’t had that experience. I am lucky to be in a school where a conscious effort is made to de-stigmatize the concept of menstruation and teachers are not afraid to discuss this with us.

Let’s talk period!

Octopus, an initiative helmed by [Nethra Nagarajan](make your own choices "Nethra Nagarajan The Animal Lover"), an eleventh grader at HLC International, is a platform for learners to express their opinions on contemporary issues and topics. A recent session was about menstrual health with the objective to make people aware of the healthier and more sustainable alternatives to sanitary napkins. The session was conducted by Abishek Venkat , a biology teacher at HLC International, someone who had been waiting to conduct such a session for a very long time and his enthusiasm was on full display throughout the session. We had our eyes opened to several shocking facts throughout the session, such as the fact that the chemical used to bleach the stuffing of a sanitary napkin produces a grade-1 carcinogen as a by-product and that its production is actually banned. Money-hungry companies still use this method due to a rather convenient loophole saying that the process used to bleach sanitary napkins has the carcinogen only as a byproduct and not the main one. But I suppose the long-term health of around half the population pales in comparison to digital ones and zeros in a bank account. Capitalism and the patriarchy make for a lethal but common combination.

Abishek anna topped off his presentation with some simple math showing the financial and environmental benefits of making the switch to more sustainable products. To give you an idea, the average number of pads a woman uses in her lifetime: 4200, takes 2.5 million years to decompose and costs 25,000 rupees! Compare that to cloth pads, of which the average number used is 35, takes only 3 years to decompose, and costs only 7000 rupees.

“It’s environment-friendly and wallet-friendly!” - Abishek Venkat

The session was finished with the personal accounts of people who have used such sustainable products and their experience of trying them out. It was listening to those accounts that really drove home to me on how much stigma towards this topic is ingrained in my mind even though I try to make conscious efforts to allow myself to be comfortable and open on the topic. While talking with my friends openly had made a huge impact on my comfort level with talking about periods, it is one thing to talk about our bodies with our classmates and another to listen to a vividly personal account of someone’s experience understanding their own bodies in a formal setting, with both people far younger and far older than me. To summarise, I was embarrassed and then embarrassed that I was embarrassed. This goes to show that belief systems, even ones that you are exposed to many years ago, have a way of taking root in your head and they require time and conscious effort to uproot.

But to actually make an impact on businesses and the general public, we need to work on policy and the laws that surround menstruation . Here is Pooja Venkataramani from Grade 12, HLC International with her beliefs and facts on the topic:

The policies, in general, are aimed at diminishing taboos, creating awareness, and paving way for better access. There is even a government to the family flowchart of how menstrual health management has to be carried out. However, despite such policies and strategies being drafted, multitudinous problems surrounding menstruation still persist. Clearly effective implementation is the barricade to bringing alive the well-crafted aspects of the menstrual health management policy. There are aspects that the policy has missed out on. The existing policies from UNICEF touch upon giving better access and an ‘environmentally friendly’ disposal but, the promotion of environmentally-friendly alternatives is inadequately mentioned.

From the discussions held in HLC’s Octopus session, it was shocking to hear women describe their struggles and the associated stink-eye and anxiety they got from their first experiences from trying a sustainable menstrual product. For a whole country to shift to more sustainable methods, it is going to require tremendous persuasion. But even before that, it requires awareness.

One suggested policy would be to increase government ads targeted at educating the people of India on the sustainable alternatives such as cloth pads and menstrual cups (just like the ads Vidya Balan featured in, on having access to restrooms). Another policy would be to subsidize sustainable menstrual products like they have done the sanitary napkins. It is integral, however, that part of the policy framework is aimed at educating menstruators on how to use products such as menstrual cups (coupled with the common, initial scares of using them) and the promotion of these options.

Feel empowered to make your own choices

I know I just spent a whole article telling you about sustainable menstrual products but using them is ultimately your choice. Do not feel guilty for not using sustainable menstrual products. You are under no compulsion to use something that you are not comfortable with. It is your body so the decision is yours and yours alone. What I will ask, is for you to try. Read up about the other options. Talk to other people about their experiences. Maybe have a trial run to see how it works with your body. Try using something that is better for your body and better for the environment.

To finally tie everything together, there is a long climb ahead of us. One that will have a lot of obstacles ranging from greed and capitalism to sexism and deep-rooted, internalized stigma. We need to learn to feel comfortable with our bodies and their biology. We need to teach younger children not to be ashamed or embarrassed in these important conversations. We need to destigmatize this topic, not just amongst women, but with men as well. And the only thing to do is to begin that slow, upward climb and keep reaching for the top, otherwise, we will never get there.

Watch the Octopus session on sustainable menstruation

Please view the entire session here and remember to show your support to our budding Instagram page: @octopusinitiative_

For more resources on sustainable alternatives to menstrual hygiene products and to read about people’s personal experiences, please visit the following websites:

Nitya Krishnan is a 12th grader at HLC International. Her interests are reading, writing, and analyzing characters and plots of her favourite TV shows.

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