The hardest decision I am faced with every day as a woman is which route to take while travelling alone at night. But what would you pick if your daily struggle was choosing between water to drink and water to wash your menstrual blood?
What do we really know about women in our villages? I grew up reading R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days and Anita Desai’s The Village by the Sea, and my conception of life for women in villages was largely framed around such fiction, woven in ordinary concerns: running the house, tending to children’s needs and spending evenings at the temple listening to old stories and praying.
For most of us, the only women we see around ourselves are middle-class women going about their daily lives – travelling to work, cooking dinner, picking up kids from school. Then there’s the occasional hiccup of begging women carrying crying children on their hips, little girls selling tit-bits at traffic signals instead of being at school, and women construction workers – you know, the ones who build houses for us but don’t have houses for themselves. But we are immediately distracted by the next big movie and the new cafe in town. The notion of cleanliness that most of us hold is one that we are shown in Dettol and detergent ads – clean hands and cockroach-free kitchens. However, even within urban India, we find slums with poor access to the most basic of amenities such as clean drinking water. The sad reality is, the situation in villages is far worse.
For those of us wanting to break the urban illusion of sparkling sinks, we turn to literature and research on rural India’s challenges – menstrual hygiene being the vanguard among them. However, when we do so, we find that scholarly literature on menstruation is centred on menstruation as a health issue and written predominantly from a malnourishment viewpoint, perhaps because malnourishment is a problem faced by men too. Our privileged-women-feminism barely touches the unique social context of rural India.
And finally, for the fringe of us who insist on further discussion, talking about the struggles of menstruating women in Indian villages loses its sheen when you’re sipping a coffee for 100 rupees at a cafe in the slightly more well-off class of society. And thus, even the most concerned among us are shielded from the ugly truths of what’s happening behind closed doors in our villages, among which are the stories of a million menstruating women in rural India.
“When he has touched a Kandala, a menstruating woman, an outcast, a woman in childbed, a corpse, or one who has touched a (corpse), he becomes pure by bathing.” – Laws of Manu
Parvati (or Paro, as they call her) has a menstruation ritual just like the other women in her village in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. When she sees a blood stain on her skirt, she knows she can confide in nobody. However, if she is unable to do any work for the day, she discretely tells her mother-in-law (saas) that she has a stomach ache. This conversation has to be a private affair; the male members of the family cannot find out. Her saas then takes her outside and asks, “Khoon hai kya?” (Is there blood?) Paro’s nod in response is the beginning of four days of ostracization for her.
The menstruation taboo takes an ugly turn in rural India. Mothers-in-law are offended by period because it means the infertile bahu (daughter-in-law) cannot bear children during this time. For husbands, it is an inconvenience as there will be no sex for the next four days. For the rest of the villagers, a menstruating woman’s touch can turn milk to curd and spoil pickle. Here, a menstruating woman is a powerful, polluting thing; a thing to be feared and shunned.
In many Indian families including mine, the start of puberty is a public celebration. Girls are given gifts and money and celebrated as goddesses. In reality, this is a euphemized way of conveying what is openly expressed in villages – an indicator that the girl is ready to be sold in marriage. For rural girls who were married as kids, puberty marks the time she moves in to her groom’s house.
Remember the scene in Game of Thrones where Sansa Stark gets her first period? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDRxitf9n54) The event is traumatic for Sansa because it means that she will now be forced to marry the psychopathic Prince Joffrey – therefore Sansa and Shae frantically try to hide all traces of the bloody bed-sheets.
“Even Goddesses are menstruating women, aren’t they?”
Paro may not get dinner tonight, especially if there are guests in their jhopdi (hut). Food is served in the order of guests, male family members, older women, and finally the younger women who cook. When you’re on your period, you’re not allowed to cook, but this isn’t a boon in disguise. The food that is prepared at home is first offered to God before being served – it is called prasad. An unholy menstruating woman is unfit to eat the holy prasad, and is often starved as a consequence.
This indoctrination takes place right from childhood. In villages, you can see boys playing gilli danda on the streets and making paper boats. Women do not have the same access to public spaces. They stay inside the house, help with cooking and cleaning, and are taught to be “proper” from the time they are born – a curse both the well-off and poor face, though it seems the richer you are, the more caged you are kept. In Titanic, we see the upper-class manifestation of this in the scene where Rose sadly watches a young girl learning to be “proper”. In the upper classes of rural India such as the Rajputs, women are bound by the purdah system (from the Hindi parda , meaning curtain) – a complex set of rules dictating feminine modesty that involve veiling the body and avoidance of public appearance, especially in the presence of relatives linked by marriage and before strange men.
“Do you know what happens to blood on cloth?”
Just like all other women in her village, Paro does not use sanitary napkins. Sanitary napkins are simply inaccessible in the small village grocery shop, and even if they are, they are expensive and a nuisance to dispose. They cannot be disposed along with the rest of the household waste which can be converted to manure. So they are stuffed into an earthen pot and burned, often in barren areas, far away from home. These areas are secluded and involve walking long distances during your period, especially given the lack of basic plumbing and sanitation infrastructure in most villages.
The solution is not as simple as subsidizing sanitation facilities. The state gives them 4,800 rupees to construct latrines, but this cost does not include the cost of laying pipes under the toilet so constructed. So what do you do with four walls and no plumbing? Even in the households that do end up constructing functional latrines using their hard-earned money, these facilities are considered relics as opposed to utilities. And valuable assets are not for excreting into.
So Paro uses a thick cloth to hold her menstrual blood, and wears two skirts in the summer heat when she is menstruating. Do you know what happens to blood on cloth? It hardens and gets crusty after a certain amount of time, causing rashes and peeling of the skin in sensitive areas.
Water is a scarce and precious resource that has to be pumped from a well far from home. To save themselves the transactional cost of walking long distances with heavy pots of water, the women of Bhilwara have trained themselves to urinate less often. This becomes precarious during period because you might be able to control your urinary bladder but you cannot control your menstrual flow.
Popping contraceptive pills to avoid menstruation
While the women of Bhilwara have trained themselves to urinate lesser, the women of Idukki have begun consuming contraceptive pills to avoid menstruation and the banishment that comes with it.
Lakshmi lives in Idukki, a small district in Kerala (a southern state of India), populated by the Muthuvan community. But when she is menstruating, her home is a valapurai – a specially made isolated mud hut – where she must stay to avoid exposure to the rest of the family members. Even though there is no space for just Lakshmi to lie down, she must share it with at least three other women. Inside the cramped, dark and grimy shed, no bigger than a crawl space, she stores her blood-stained rags and groceries in a bundle hung from the thatched roof. These rags (used to hold the menstrual blood in place of sanitary pads) are poorly washed and re-used throughout the period cycle. The valapurais have no availability of electricity, and no dearth of elephant attacks in the middle of the night.
Mala-D is an oral contraceptive produced by the central public sector Hindustan Latex Limited that is being abused in these districts to evade period. As a result of consuming it – the practice begins from the time girls start menstruating – many have stopped conceiving, and the birth rate in this region has sharply declined.
“Ignorance is not bliss, it is an undeserved privilege.”
The crisis of hygiene for rural women forms a complex web of social, economical, and political issues. To attempt to propose a simplistic solution would undermine the nuances of the challenge. So what do we do about it while we sit in our bungalows and read this on a laptop? Honestly, I don’t know yet. But I do know that it becomes psychologically disorientating for women to look out at a world where our menstrual reality doesn’t exist. Realities do not cease to exist because they are ignored. Maybe if we all learned more about these realities, became more eager to talk about them, and integrated them in our feminism, we’d come closer to the solution. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s time we called it. This article is a small start, and as I write it, I’m having my period – deal with it.
Motivated by the experiences of Sharada Srinivasan from pad yatras in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, India, and Amrutha Jose Pampackal at the Tirthamala tribal settlement in Idukki district, Kerala, India.