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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

An Unending Stigma for Women - Period Poverty in India

Article by: Britta Hughes

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The Girl from Shivamogga

Every month,  26% of the world’s population menstruate. Periods can pose an unending stigma for millions of women, burdened by the ongoing shame of inadequate access to period products. One of those individuals is a 12-year-old girl in Shivamogga, India, feeling humiliated and embarrassed. After staining her school uniform with blood, she begins to stay home from school each week of her period, stalling her education. Period poverty is the restricted access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene, adequate toilets and hand washing, appropriate waste disposal and education surrounding menstrual health. This cultural shame combined with lack of access to menstrual products and education, is creating debilitating period poverty faced by millions of Indian women and girls.In India, barriers to sanitary products include high costs for sanitary products and accessibility in rural areas, as products are often only available in urban areas. There is also an immense shame and guilt for girls to ask their families for money to purchase products due to the taboo surrounding menstruation and the difficult choice between family meals or sanitary products for many low socioeconomic families.

Growing Health Risks

Due to these financial and cultural barriers, it is estimated only 36% of Indian women use sanitary napkins and more than 30% of those aged 15-24 have to improvise with unhygienic alternatives. These include old rags, toilet paper, newspaper soil, husk and leaves – all of which can have severe health implications. It is estimated that 70% of women are at risk due to these dangerous alternatives, exemplified by the fact that 1 in 53 Indian women will have cervical cancer in their lifetime. The monthly anxiety regarding sourcing adequate resources to manage their periods also amplifies feelings of ostracization and shame for millions of Indian women. Combined with the hazardous health ramifications that poor menstrual hygiene has for these women, every week for every month for every year, women are challenged with health, financial and social anxieties.

Stigma and Taboo

Another key contributor amplifying the stigma surrounding periods in India is the discrimination against menstruating women, as periods are considered taboo and impure. In one school, a young Indian girl reportedly committed suicide after being shamed by her teacher about a period stain in front of her peers. Women on their periods are often not allowed to enter religious events and buildings, or social settings and are not allowed to enter the kitchen or prepare certain foods. These cultural superstitions surrounding the idea of ‘impurity’ and ‘dirtiness’ make it incredibly difficult to raise awareness about menstrual health and hygiene when mindsets regarding periods are culturally and socially misconstrued. This is amplified by the fact 70% of Indian mothers believe periods are ‘dirty’ and only half of Indian girls believe periods are normal. The statistics show that conversations are not being had about menstruation in general, let alone essential conversations about reproductive and menstrual health. In fact, only 71% of Indian girls know what periods are before they have one. This unpreparedness heavily feeds into feelings of shame and misconceptions. Therefore, this makes development towards ending period poverty in India more challenging as social and cultural perceptions of periods also need to shift to promote the visibility of accessible and affordable solutions.

The Problems with Education

Education is the number one tool to empower women and change the stigma around periods in India. However, with 23 million girls dropping out of school when they start menstruating and those who stay in school often missing up to 10 days of school a month due to their period, it is difficult to change the discourse surrounding menstruation in India. With periods also being taboo, there’s a unique fear of being ridiculed by peers or staining one’s uniform, resulting in serious mental health outcomes and fear of humiliation. Clearly, periods are not being talked about enough in the family home, hence education plays a pivotal role in establishing that periods are a normal biological process to dismantle the misconceptions and taboo.

An Environmental Issue

Solving period poverty is also about sustainability. Most period products like pads and tampons, are full of plastics making them difficult to dispose of responsibly, especially when Indian schools and toilet facilities are already lacking adequate waste management facilities. Hence, this issue will not be solved by increasing the accessibility and affordability of disposable sanitary products, although the Indian government did remove the 12% tax on sanitary products in 2018. This is a positive step in reducing rates of period poverty, yet still, many women are hesitant to use disposable products because they do not have adequate disposal methods for fear of contaminating water sources. Despite this promotion of disposal products, period poverty still prevails due to the monthly financial and environmental burden. Indian women and girls use 12 billion pads annually, a long-term alternative is menstrual cups. Menstrual cups could alleviate period poverty sustainably and effectively for India’s large population, in both rural and urban regions.  They have 1.5% of the environmental impact at 10% of the cost of a pad, lasting for up to 10 years, but with uptake of cups at 0.3% for Indian women between 18-24, why aren’t menstrual cups more popular to help end period poverty in India?

An Ecological Alternative

The answer is that menstrual cups require vaginal insertion which also remains taboo raising concerns it may result in the girl being considered ‘impure.’ Education and shifting cultural discourse about periods in India is ultimately the key to solving period poverty in India and getting girls and women back in the classroom without the fear of shame and humiliation. Asan, a company which creates menstrual cups, hopes to be selling to 5 million women in the next 5 years, averting 500 million tons of waste to landfills. To educate Indian women about the safety and usage of menstrual cups, Asan focuses on educating one local woman in an Indian village first so that she can then share the information with her respective community. This allows the information to flow from a trusted source, empowering local women with menstrual education. Sustainable and reusable period products are pioneering the lead to end period poverty in India, but education to break down taboos and misinformation about periods is essential to ensure the uptake of menstrual cups and promote menstrual health. The combination of both education and sustainable period products possesses the ability to break this cycle of shame and give back power to women who menstruate in India.

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