Menstruation taboos: Reaching out only to adolescent girls is not enough

WaterAid/Poulomi Basu

Shamed for a period stain, a young girl ends her life. It makes us rethink –is addressing menstruation related taboos by reaching out only to adolescent girls enough?

A young girl ending her life because she was shamed in school for period stain on her uniform is unacceptable. A teacher humiliating a female student for a period stain in class is unacceptable.

But, let us pause and think through what led to the event in Tamil Nadu a couple of weeks ago. India has undoubtedly made significant progress in tackling the much-tabooed topic of menstruation and menstrual hygiene. We have government schemes on menstrual hygiene for adolescent girls that provide information and distribute sanitary pads; civil society organisations are implementing several programs with girls to spread awareness and address taboos related to periods; entrepreneurs are making affordable, high quality and even eco-friendly pads in the hope that these products will become more accessible to girls. So why did this young girl feel compelled to end her life?

A part of the answer lies in the way our interventions are designed and the fact that the primary focus of anything related to menstruation is the adolescent girl. This makes sense – adolescence is a critical development window, and menarche offers an opportune moment to intervene. However, adolescent girls do not exist in isolation. They are a part of the larger eco system comprising their families, their communities and the schools they attend. In empowering girls with knowledge and positive attitude towards menstruation, and equipping them with products to manage their periods hygienically, we must be aware that their ability to experience healthy periods is also shaped by the important people in their life. These influencers – mothers, fathers, siblings, teachers, health care providers, play a critical role in shaping young girls’ experience of menstruation, and can overshadow the well-intentioned interventions these girls receive.

The question we must ask ourselves now is whether we reach out to all these influencers.  In a way, we do. We train teachers, and frontline health workers such as accredited social health activists (ASHAs) and anganwadi workers to impart information to girls and to distribute pads. However, in light of this recent event – this is clearly insufficient. We miss that influencers come from the same communities as adolescent girls, they are conditioned by the same socio-cultural norms that girls are, and they are constrained by the same entrenched taboos. Preparing them to deliver information and equipping them with flipcharts and sanitary pads is an important first step, yet proves to be inadequate. These trainings often do not identify and challenge their own deep-set attitudes towards menstruation. If influencers are to help our adolescent girls be healthy and confident young women, they themselves need the support and tools that empower adolescent girls to question, contest, and overcome inequitable gender and social norms that shape their attitudes and responses to menstruation.

If we really want to make menstruation a non-taboo in India – it is time we enable and empower mothers, fathers, teachers, health care providers to break the culture of silence and shame that they themselves experience. We owe this to our girls.

We at WaterAid India believe that there is #noshame in menstruation. Watch the video and help us spread the word!

Arundati Muralidharan is Manager - Policy (WASH in Health & Nutrition, WASH in Schools)
 at WaterAid India. She Tweets as @arundati_md

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