Menstrual hygiene in the Indian society, since many centuries, has remained as a cause of serious concern, even though menstruation is a natural process for every girl on attaining puberty.
In many corners of the country, menstruation walks shoulder-to-shoulder with innumerable taboos and myths; and the state of Assam is not exceptional to it.
Just like many other states, in Assam as well one discussing menstruation in front of boys is a strict ‘no-no’. In many places, especially in the rural areas, a girl going through her monthly menstruation cycle has to pass the days as if she has been cursed by God!
No one talks about it ‘openly’ and if a girl, by any mistake, talks about it in open she is treated like a sinner who has committed a grievous sin and the biggest ever mistake of her life.
Menstruation is a natural process and every female being- man and animal alike- goes through a monthly menstruation cycle.
A girl is unable to conceive and give birth until and unless she attains the age of menstruation. But what is mostly observed in Assam is that one can talk about giving birth is fine, but speaking about menstruation is a crime.
In most of the remote areas, even after so much scientific and medical advancement, most girls are not aware of menstrual hygiene- one thing which is very important for their personal wellbeing and disease-free health. Owing to this lack of knowledge, many girls face various different health issues and some even die during owing to such an unhygienic environment.
The government, over the past few years, have initiated steps to bring about awareness on menstrual hygiene and Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is one such initiative. It is an integral part of the Swachh Bharat Mission guidelines.
MHM framework states- access to knowledge and information, access to safe menstrual absorbents, water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure and access to safe disposal of used menstrual absorbents.
However, what has been observed that most of the girls from rural areas don't even get a sanitary napkin to use while they go through their menstruation cycle. Instead, they use a piece of ‘dirty’ cloth, which is unhygienic and gives birth to a number of health issues.
Many a time we talk about menstrual hygiene but these girls don't have the slightest of knowledge about these processes of hygiene as instead of these processes, the girls in rural areas are taught about the prevalent taboos and the myths.
Assam is a flood-ravaged state and a majority of flood-hit people have to live in the relief camps, which in many ways are unhygienic and dirty. In such an environment, for the women, the menstruating period is more like hell.
A majority of the people living in the relief camps are uneducated and they, in many ways, are unaware of the various hygiene ways by practising which they can keep themselves disease-free.
The conditions of the relief camps are such that people don’t even get a proper bath daily and in such a situation, knowing or understanding menstrual hygiene is a far-fetched dream.
However, they are forced to follow the rituals and customs associated with menstruation.
Thus, these girls remain forever ignorant of the scientific ways of menstrual hygiene.
“I am extremely surprised when I visit these places and see that menstruating girls don't even step out of their rooms and those living in relief camps have to sit by a corner and they can't even talk to others,” says Archana Borthakur, founder of Priyobondhu- an NGO dealing with social issues- while speaking to this correspondent.
Citing an example, Borthakur said, “Once while we were distributing flood-relief materials, we noticed that a girl was standing at a distance and did not come forward to collect the relief material. On enquired, her friend said that since she was menstruating, she was ashamed of the bloodstains on her clothes.”
“Sadly, she was living in such a situation for days and she did not even have a piece of cloth to use. Using sanitary pads was a distant reality as most of the girls did not even hear about pads in their lifetime,” Borthakur adds further.
Borthakur, speaking about another incident, spoke about a young girl who asked her family as to why was she not allowed to enter the kitchen while she was on her menstruation period?
“The girl had further questioned as why were taboos imposed on girls alone in the name of religion and traditions,” recalled Borthakur.
“Girls can’t talk about their periods to anyone and they are made to believe that a menstruating girl is impure and hence they can’t enter the kitchen,” said Borthakur.
“They are taught to live in a separate room
and are refrained from entering the temple,” she further added.
Speaking about some of the popular beliefs that the NGO came across about a menstruating woman are- a menstruating woman should not take bath else they would become impotent; they should touch a cow and if they do then the cow would become infertile; she should not cook or look into the mirror or else she might lose her eyesight and she should not touch a plant else it will die.
“All these girls are taught about the myths and not a single word on hygiene that they should maintain while in the menstruating period. Most of the girls are also stopped from going to schools and colleges when menstruating,” added Borthakur.
She further said that the lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene pushes these girls to the jaws of death.
“Most females don’t even bother to consider and think if their menstrual practices are hygienic or not. They follow a secret routine and everything passes on very secretively,” she added.
“Poor menstrual hygiene practice can cause fungal infections, reproductive tract infection and urinary tract infection which might also lead to cervical cancer,” Borthakur added.
When the author spoke to the girls living in the relief camps, most of the girls spoke about the kind of problems they have to face during their periods.
"It gets tough for us during those days as we cannot go anywhere nor can we communicate with anyone. We don't know why are we not allowed to go out of our house or communicate with others. We can't even touch anything,” said an inmate of a relief camp.
This is not just a story of one or two relief camps in Assam, but it is a day-to-day affair in several households across the state.
This is the second decade of the 21st century and it is time that we stop practising the prevalent customs and focus more on improving the menstrual hygiene practices in the state and the Northeast. Let menstrual hygiene become a part of the curriculum and students- both boys and girls- are taught about it. Every individual, irrespective of the gender, has an important role to play in building a strong nation where menstruating women are not chained to the social taboos and obsolete rituals.