The menstrual taboo in India and in the US: What does it look like, why does it exist?

Here is an article I wrote for The Guardian Development Blog, in partnership with Binti Period as well as WSSCC:

This blog was written by Kiran Gandhi, gender equality activist and musician,  and John Harvey, Senior Project Implementation and Communications Officer, Binti LLP.

In April 2015, I ran the London Marathon bleeding-freely on the first day of my period in order to raise awareness about period stigma around the world. Many here in the western hemisphere don’t believe stigma exists – often because that word seems to imply that we shun people with periods or throw stones at them. But, that’s not what period stigma is. It is the inability for someone to speak clearly and comfortably about their own bodies. It is feeling the need to apologize to someone else if they hear you speak about your period. It is whispering to ask a friend for a pad instead of being able to ask for one openly like you might be able to ask for a Band-Aid. It is keeping quiet about severe menstrual cramps at work, instead of being able to express honestly that you are in pain, the same way you might if you had a bad stomach ache from eating old food. It is not having access to language that makes you feel safe or normal when talking about your body, instead of awkward and uncomfortable.

Cultures around the world suffer from menstrual taboos, whether it is in the North or the global South. I spent many years growing up in India and visiting annually, and so I feel I can speak from experience about the sources of taboo specifically in India and in the United States. To do so, I teamed up with the period-stigma-fighting organization, Binti Period, to co-author this article about where we believe stigma comes from in both countries, as well as what we believe can be done to stop it.

Credit: Binti Period

Growing up between India and the U.S., I recognized at a young age that the two countries have very different cultures and practices surrounding menstruation. But there is one key similarity: both countries suffer from severe taboo around periods. Why does this matter? Because not having socially acceptable vocabulary for being able to talk about your own body comfortably is the most effective form of oppression. It prohibits women from being able to speak confidently about what is happening t them biologically, and worse it can prevent actual medical emergencies or problems from being reported. It can prevent solutions for how to care for yourself when on your period from being shared! Even worse, it creates a culture in which we all believe that no one’s period is actually that uncomfortable, and that if you say something about it, it must be because you are trying to draw attention to yourself.

Shame comes in all forms. It can look like a girl in Nepal having to exist in a separate space from the rest of her family while she is on her period, or it can look like a middle school girl in New York City not feeling empowered enough to ask for a pad while at school.  Moreover, it can take the form of economic burden, for women world-over, when products to take care of themselves on their periods are taxed heavily or are inaccessible.

A girl’s first period is perhaps one of the most natural markers of transition into womanhood. It may not come as a surprise to development professionals that girls often don’t know about periods until they menstruate – this is true for 66% of girls in India – but menstruation ignorance may wrongly be associated with the global South. When I ran the London marathon free-bleeding in solidarity with women who don’t have access to sanitary products, the media expressed its outrage and disgust, rather than be outraged at the menstruating women who struggle daily without access to sanitary products. Other political issues that pervade the menstrual landscape – such as the ‘tampon tax’ – serve to demonstrate the backward attitudes that are prevalent in the west as much as the east.

Kiran Gandhi leading a discussion at the University of California Los Angeles about menstrual taboo on college campuses. Credit: Binti Period

Recognizing the taboos that exist in the North, which inevitably affect any development work in the South is the first step. The statistics speak for themselves: 23% of girls in India drop out of school when they begin menstruating. Changing our attitudes and having ‘menstrual-consciousness’ means recognizing the way in which menstruation may be a hindrance to the outcomes of projects when it doesn’t have to be – covering sectors from WASH, education and women’s economic empowerment. Aside from this, there are the basic rights arguments and quality of life – only 12% of India’s menstruating women use sanitary pads while they are menstruating.

Binti Period UK is a social enterprise formed in 2014 and is a product of the growing discussion around menstruation. Working at the grassroots level, its work in India and Kenya unearthed some shocking experiences. Stories range from alienation – such as menstruating girls and women being prohibited from entering temples and sitting with their family because they are ‘dirty’ – to danger and risky behaviour. Women confessed to Binti Period that they use old rags to manage their periods, one young girl explained how she once used a chocolate box and cotton wool to manage her period and avoided school for the day. The desperation sometimes leads women and girls into danger, such as a girl in Kenya who exchanged sexual favours for sanitary pads.

Converting women and girls into users of sanitary pads is therefore difficult when these products are so expensive – making them an unaffordable luxury for women rather than a basic necessity. Converting users of rags and the like must therefore be sustainable, and to reach the stage of sustainability, we must tackle the stigma at home and abroad. This is where clever use of social media comes in – being able to drive conversation teaches us all that menstruation is nothing to be afraid of can in fact be comfortably discussed in the open. In speaking about menstruation, the goal is not to arrive at one unanimous world view point about it, instead the goal is to spark global conversations about something that affects 50% of the population in various ways. The goal is arrive a ta place where menstruation is not something that holds women back but instead could even be a common bonding point for women across various nationalities and borders. Talking is the first step towards de-stigmatization – for example, Binti recently launched its successful Mindful Menstruation programme, which interactively educates boys and girls in Kenya and India about menstruation, by tackling the cultural issues of shame and impurity.

Another aspect of Binti Period’s work integrates access, affordability and women’s economic empowerment, installing machines and recruiting women at the local level to produce eco-friendly and affordable sanitary pads – slashing the cost to just 25 rupees (25p) per pack. It is the sustainable and comprehensive approach of Binti Period that has led me to become their ambassador so that we can make a lasting positive change in the everyday lives of women.

Consider a world in which we as a society can speak as comfortably about menstruation as we do a cold – both are admittedly unpleasant, but both have easy remedies. Sometimes when we have a cold, we are still able to get through our workday. Other times, it is too severe and we have to take rest. Both are socially acceptable. Periods should act similarly in the workplace or at school. I want to live in a world where girls and women can feel safe enough asking for medicine or a short moment of rest if they are experiencing severe cramps or discomfort. I want to live in a world where that would not be scoffed at or strange. I want to live in a world where school and office environments recognize that in order to get the best work from the girls or women in their communities, they have to foster environments that acknowledge that women have periods one a month, and that this affects them differently. Giving young girls the tools to speak about their own bodies unapologetically is a skill that can start at home. I want to live in a world where it is ok to have a period, instead of quiet, awkward, weird or taboo.