By Caitlin Evans
The menstrual taboo manifests itself in all areas of the world. Even in the UK today television adverts of menstrual hygiene products tactfully gloss over the biology and visual reality of periods, and many a horror story can be told of the fully-grown man who is totally ignorant of the tampon’s function. This ignorance surrounding such basic biology has created cultural practices that often feed directly into gender discrimination. And this is demonstrated really well in Jakholai village in Rajasthan, India.
Here in Jakholai, girls during their periods are not allowed to touch drinking water stores or partake in the preparation of food because they are perceived to be ‘impure.’ Girls are also instructed not to play or socialise or visit the temple during their periods. Women are isolated often without an adequate explanation of what is happening and why.
In the community, your purity is also dictated by your caste. Lower castes are not allowed to use upper caste food utensils, water pumps or anything that may poison the purity of the upper castes. Unfortunately for women, even when they are of the ‘right’ caste and at the right point in their menstrual cycle to be considered ‘pure’ they are still restricted in what they can do in order for them to maintain their purity. For example, women in the upper caste household are excluded from cooking and eating expensive and nutrient-rich meat and eggs as these ungodly ingredients will poison their purity. The enforcement of a women’s ‘purity’ consistently restricts her personal freedom and in many ways, can adversely affect her health. Many of the girls suffer with anaemia due to a lack of iron in their diets during their periods, and practice poor menstrual hygiene, leading to increased chances of infection.
To break down, or at least challenge these cultural practices surrounding menstruation our team of Pravah ICS volunteers has been trying to educate young girls as to the exact biological nature of their periods. In addition, we have tried to create a safe space in which girls can express their concerns, and in many instances their anger and confusion at how they are treated. In our sessions, we gave the girls an opportunity to write anonymously their questions about periods. Most of them asked ‘why do I have periods?’ and ‘why can I not do certain things when I have them?’ Our sessions focused on giving the girls a strong understanding of the biology as oppose to other explanations the girls are sometimes given, or in the silence that surrounds periods, the explanations they make up to explain it to themselves. We also stressed that these were cultural attitudes to menstruation; that they could be changed and challenged. We hoped to show that these attitudes were very much a minority and isolated set of ideas from the rest of the world, even, as our counter-parts stressed, from many other areas of India.
The reaction from the girls has been the biggest reward for the volunteers’ hard work while in the community. As a group the girls are extremely open, honest and genuinely curious. They have been a joy to work with. Many of the girls resolved to challenge these practices that had for so long been an unquestioned part of their lives. Working with this inspiring group of young women, we believe change is coming, as Pinky (one of the participants) said, ‘Boys and girls, we think the same, it is our elders who try to make us different.’
(Caitlin Evans volunteered with Pravah ICS from January – April 2017 and was placed with partner organisation Manthan in district Ajmer.)