Mayuravarshini Mohana
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Menarche, or the onset of menstruation, holds a significant importance in the life of a woman. Biologically, her body undergoes changes during puberty, such as pubic and underarm hair growth, breast development and hormonal changes. It can be an emotionally difficult period, for the body suddenly becomes a strange entity. It is a delicate phase of a woman’s life for she has to observe, understand her body and re-establish a relationship with it. What would otherwise be a beautiful opportunity for self-exploration, menstruation is turned into an event of disgrace and shame by cultural narratives and practices.

It is really befuddling how menstruation came to be associated with ‘impurity’. It is nothing beyond an attempt to invalidate and discredit the female body. A lot of cultural discourses on women concern their body. Think of virginity and chastity that are deemed hallmarks of a fine woman. Apparently, those who transgress are ‘unwomanly’. At the heart of such beliefs is the conviction that controlling her body is to control woman. Not surprisingly, menstruation has a lot of such myths and beliefs surrounding it. The alleged ‘impurity’ of menstruating women prohibits them from cooking, cleaning, praying or entering a place of worship. They are socially ostracised and sequestered to a separate shed or a room, often in unsafe conditions. In rural areas, such huts are located at the outskirts, near the forest where it is not uncommon to encounter wild animals such as snakes. Such misconceptions not only endanger women’s lives but also hamper their social progress. A 2015 report by Dasra a Mumbai-based philanthropy foundation and the Bank of America stated that almost 23% girls dropped out of school on reaching puberty. While this problem owes significantly to poor infrastructure, a change in social perception of menstruation is of utmost necessity.
Menstrual education still remains a major concern. It needs to be more intensive, comprehensive, inclusive and extensive. Most importantly, it must happen out in the open. Not behind closed doors and certainly not in hushed voices. Excluding men out of the conversation only widens the gender gap. By doing so, we are discouraging men from being empathetic and sensitive to what women undergo every month.

Menstrual education facilitates proper menstrual management in addition to invalidating irrational taboos. Even India’s urban population has only a basic awareness of menstrual hygiene. Knowledge on allergies, vaginal infections, alternatives to sanitary pads, eco-friendly menstrual products is a rarity. The only way forward is to discuss menstruation openly and the process begins at schools. Teachers should teach menstruation and other aspects of adolescence as they would handle, say, photosynthesis or the digestive system. Why close the class room doors? Why lower your voices? Why the air of discomfort?

Media too has a great role to play in misrepresenting menstruation as well as clearing the air around it. Many advertisements for sanitary pads contribute to the former, through their unrealistic portrayal of menstruation- a cramp free, painless period. It perpetrates the idea that women don’t face issues during periods, which a majority of women do. Also, do women bleed blue?

On the bright side, there are indeed a lot of documentaries and films that address menstruation such as the Oscar winning ‘Period. End of Sentence’. Initiatives such as Pad for Pad by Ecofemme, Not Just a Piece of Cloth programme by Goonj and Menstrupedia Comic by Aditi Gupta, Tuhin Paul and Rajat Mittal which educate on menstruation as well as help alleviate period poverty.

It is high time we normalise menstruation.