The Menstruation Taboo and its Impact on Gender Equality

Devisha Vythelingum

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Image credits: Tim Marshall-114623-unsplash

apparently it is ungraceful of me

to mention my period in public

cause the actual biology

of my body is too real

 

it is okay to sell what’s

between a woman’s legs

more than it is okay to

mention its inner workings

 

the recreational use of

this body is seen as

beautiful while

its nature is

seen as ugly

 

– rupi kaur

About 52% of girls and women around the world (roughly estimated to be 1.9 billion people) are of reproductive age. The majority, if not all of them, live in silence or shame about their period. Women’s bodies are used as a means of entertainment or pleasure, as if their primary function is to please, satisfy or procreate, but their natural functioning is seen as taboo, private and shamed. Period blood creates more repulsion than the sexualisation of women and gender violence. The stigmatisation of menstruation through societal customs and/or state policies has encouraged gender discrimination against women and furthered the gap in gender inequality between men and women. This has resulted into women having limited access to education, sexual and reproductive health services, and employment.

This article will first outline the different customs around the world which view menstruation as impure and taboo. It will then address the price that governments put on menstruation, mainly in the form of taxes which prevent women from properly accessing sanitary products. Finally, it will consider the consequences of the stigmatisation of menstruation on women’s rights and gender equality.

 

Stigmatisation Around the World

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A sign outside a temple in India. Image credits: dominiqueb via Flickr

The stigmatisation of menstruation is embedded in religion or deeply rooted in cultural practices throughout the world. As a result, women are often disadvantaged and discriminated against simply for bleeding.

Exiled for bleeding or Nepal’s Chaupadi

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A 14 year-old girl sits inside a chaupadi goth in Legudsen village in Nepal. She is forced to miss school as she is menstruating. Image credits: The Guardian

In Nepal, when a girl or a woman is menstruating, she is not allowed to stay in her family house and live her daily life as she is normally used to. Women are isolated from family members and are not allowed to take part in cultural and social activities as they are considered to be impure. This practice is called ‘chaupadi’. It is believed that if women do not observe this custom, they will live a shorter life, livestock will die and crops will be destroyed.

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A family member offering food to women practising chaupadi. The dish or the women are not touched as they are considered to be impure. Image credits: The Guardian

During menstruation, women instead reside in a ‘chaupadi goth’, which is a shed outside the family house, made of stone or mud without any proper doors and barely any windows. They stay in these sheds throughout the whole of their monthly menstrual cycle (normally for 5 days although young girls who experience their period for the first time, have to stay for 14 days). Access to water facilities inside the sheds is limited if not inexistent and therefore, to clean themselves or wash their clothes, women go to a ‘chaupadi dhara’, which is a separate well near their villages.

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A woman practicing chaupadi washes her clothes in a stream in Achham district in Nepal. Image credits: The Guardian

Aside from being banned from entering the family house, women are also not allowed to enter kitchens or temples when they are menstruating. They cannot touch other people, cattle, vegetables and plants, and fruits. They are also prevented from milking buffalos or cows and from having dairy products, thereby depriving them of nutritious foods during their menstrual cycle. Furthermore, owing to the fact that they are isolated from their family house, women have to engage in manual labour outdoors. They often dig, do farm work and collect wood to start fires during winter. This often results in the deterioration of their health, with women suffering from diarrhea, respiratory problems and pneumonia. In 2010, an 11 year-old girl died from diarrhea and dehydration while she was in a shed. Her family members refused to take her to the hospital because touching her while she was menstruating would make them impure.

Owing to the fact that sheds are not well-equipped with doors or windows and are unprotected, women often lose their lives either because of suffocation or attacks from wild animals (such as snakes and scorpions). During winter, temperatures can drop below zero degrees in Nepal. The sheds where women reside during their menstrual cycle are unheated and therefore, women are forced to keep themselves warm by starting fires in their sheds. This often causes smoke inhalation, resulting in several cases of deaths. Earlier this year a mother and her two children died of suffocation in their shed. In 2018 last year, a 21 year-old woman lost her life because of smoke inhalation. Women are also subjected to sexual abuse and rape by men when they stay outside. However, most cases go unreported because of social stigma. As a result, women often suffer from guilt, humiliation and depression.

Moreover, in some parts of Nepal, it is believed that the Goddess Saraswati, who is the Goddess of Education, will be angry if girls or women read, write, touch books or go to school when they are menstruating. Girls therefore do not attend school when they are on their period. This limits their access to education compared to boys and furthers gender discrimination in the long term as it can have an impact on the absence of future employment opportunities for women.

Chaupadi has been criminalised by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005 and the legislature banning the practice came into effect in August 2018. However, the custom is still observed, probably because of the weak sentence imposed for reinforcing it: 3 months of imprisonment or a mere fine of 3,000 Nepalese rupees (which is as low as £20 or $26). Other penalties which have been imposed have put families in a dilemma of choice, where they had to choose between continuing to follow the practice or being disallowed from receiving state support food. Often, families have chosen to receive state support food rather than following chaupadi. However, these choices are made because of the state of poverty that some people in Nepal live in, rather than because people genuinely believe that menstruation is not impure or dirty and that women should not be exiled for it. Therefore, light is still not shed on what really needs to be addressed: mainly that there is a need for education and awareness to remove the taboo around menstruation and that women should be empowered to be accountable for their menstrual health.

It is noteworthy that Nepal is a state party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW’s preamble outlines that gender discrimination against women prevents them from taking part in political, social, economic and cultural life. It also calls upon states to eliminate societal customs which put women in a disadvantaged position and cause discrimination as well as inferiority. However, as discussed above, the practice of chaupadi transgresses the fundamental human rights of women in that it encourages discrimination and helps in furthering gender inequality.

Importantly, Nepal is not the only state which is party to the CEDAW. The majority of the countries in the world have ratified the Convention but have nevertheless failed to observe its principles as far as menstruation is concerned. Articles 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outline that every human being is born equal and that everyone is entitled to equal rights and dignity regardless of their sex or national origin. The universal application of these principles have been encouraged in respect of various human rights issues around the world, mainly gender violence, equal pay or racism.

However, when it comes to menstruation, voices have not always been as uniform as they have been in other battles. One of the main reasons is because menstruation is a universal taboo and remains for the majority a shameful topic to address. As a result, superstitions, discriminatory practices and unreasonable beliefs about menstruation prevail around the world.

The following is not an exhaustive list

In some traditions, girls and women are forbidden from touching their genitals or bathing when they are menstruating.

In India, women are not allowed in temples when they are menstruating. The Sabarimana Temple in Kerala has even banned women from 10-50 years old from entering the temple as it is impossible to know when a woman is menstruating. It was proclaimed that women will be allowed to have access to the temple only when a machine has been invented to show when women are on their period and when they are pure enough to enter. Not only does this create gender discrimination, but it also takes away the freedom of religion from women. In a conservative society where internet pornography is as common as the gender violence prevailing every single day, the fertility of women is still taboo.

70% of Indian mothers see menstruation as dirty and impure.

In Malawi, girls and women do not wash their cloths in public when they are on their period as they believe that menstrual blood should not be seen by other people.

In various parts of the world, girls and women are not allowed to touch water, cook, clean, attend religious ceremonies, socialise, sleep in their own beds or come close to certain kinds of food such as pickles (as it is believed that if women get close to pickles when they are menstruating, the pickles will turn sour). Bed sheets are changed when a woman is no longer menstruating (most of the times this is done even though the sheets are clean) because it is believed that a woman sleeping on a bed while on her period turns everything dirty and impure.

Fear, shame and limitations on mobility forces girls to miss school and other social events. Some girls do not even talk about menstruation as it is considered to be related to sexual behaviour which is believed to be improper.

Stigmatising period blood silences or shames its existence. This in turn encourages ignorance and unawareness of menstruation. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate people are women. Not only do women have limited access to education but when they do, they are barely taught to not be ashamed about the natural functioning of their bodies. Most are conditioned at an early age to believe that their period is dirty and shameful, rather than natural and biological. In India, only 55% of young girls consider menstruation as a natural process. 48% was aware of menstruation before they had their first period and no more than 23% were aware that they bleed from the uterus. In Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia and Uganda, mothers are uncomfortable to talk about menstruation to their daughters and in this way, superstitions and unreasonable beliefs about period may be exchanged. Teachers in schools are unwilling to educate young girls about menstruation, with some girls even being punished for speaking freely about it.

Perceiving menstruation in this way not only forces women to be silent about and unaware of it but also gives a chance to men to make policy decisions about women’s bodies. Women are underrepresented in most governments and the prevalence of men means that legislators are passing state policies without an understanding of women’s sexual, reproductive and menstrual health. This in turn furthers the stigmatisation of menstruation and makes it binding on women. 

Taxing Blood

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Image credits: The Gryphon

Menstruation has a price. Throughout their lifetime, it is estimated that women pay about £18,450 for sanitary products. Sanitary products have not always been seen as a necessity by many and this has been used as an excuse to make money off women’s bodies. Tampons and pads have been termed as ‘luxury items’ by the European Commission. In India, sanitary pads are considered as non-essential items whereas sindoor (the red vermillion that married women wear), bangles and bindis are considered essential and are free from tax. Surprisingly, condoms are often distributed as free items compared to sanitary products. This reinforces gender disparity and the belief that men’s sexual drive is natural (contributing to victim-shaming, rape or abuses against women) but women’s bodies are taxed for simply functioning.

The UK currently puts a 5% VAT on sanitary products with £15 million of the money raised by tax stated to be spent on women’s charities (women’s refuges and domestic abuse charities). Therefore, not only are women charged for simply bleeding but they also pay to protect themselves. The distribution of tax money to women’s charities act like a pat on the back, to convince women that their money is being used for their own good and that taxing their blood is for their own benefit. But what does happen if the tampon tax is abolished? Does that mean that no funds will go to these charities? Isn’t it appropriate that a share of all taxes should go towards implementing methods to protect women anyway?

Surprisingly, tax money received from sanitary products is most often used to fund organisations which are against women’s autonomy. A quarter of the tax money in the UK went to Life, an organisation which is against abortion. The dark side of reality is that women are first taxed for their fertility and then this money is used to fund organisations which prevent women from doing what they want with their bodies.

 

Consequences for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality

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Image credits: United Nations

Stigmatising menstruation and taxing it has resulted in the breach of women’s fundamental rights. In 2017, more than 137,700 girls in the UK missed school because their families could not afford sanitary products. 6% of parents have resorted to stealing to be able to provide their daughters with sanitary protection. A quarter of young girls have had to resort to the use of tissues, cotton wool or have had to double up their underwear because of a lack of access to sanitary products. 13% of girls used their tampons for a longer period because of the lack of replacement, thereby risking infections.

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 90% of girls coming from rural areas missed about 5 days of schooling when they were menstruating. In urban cities, girls miss school for 2-3 days. This is because sanitary products are either too expensive or conditions for menstrual hygiene at their schools are inadequate.

In Kenya, girls engage in transactional sex to be able to pay for sanitary products. This increases risks of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies and early dropout from their education.

In India, young girls miss on average 50 days of schooling in a year because they cannot afford sanitary products. In rural India, 23% of girls drop out of school as soon as they have their first period while 28% miss school when they are menstruating. Pads are either too expensive or unavailable in major parts of India. In a study conducted in India, it was found that 89% used cloth, 2% cotton wool, 7% pads and 2% ash. 14% of girls reported menstrual infection. Most often, this is because women use reusable cloths and pads, a practice which is likely to cause urogenital infection. According to a National Health Data in India, only 7 out of the 36 states in the country do 90% of women practise menstrual hygiene. It is estimated that 70% of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.

In Uganda, 25% of girls miss school for the same reason and the fear of being shamed by their friends. A study from the country showed that 90.5% of young girls did not have menstrual hygiene which results in shame as they are unwilling to participate in school activities or stand up in class. Most of the cloths or pads which are used are washed and then used again, causing infections. Moreover, the stigmatisation around menstruation forces young girls to miss school to avoid being teased by their friends.

One in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses 20% of her school year while the majority stop going to school when they start menstruating. Dropouts are also in numbers in Kenya, Niger, India, Cambodia, and Iran.

In Kenya, girls cannot concentrate in school when they are menstruating as they are afraid of being shamed by other girls, sexually harassed by boys and avoid participating in class for fear of odour, leakage or smelling.

A study carried out in Bwagiriza Refugee camp in Burundi showed that girls abstained from school for the same reasons.

In the Southern part of India (Tamil Nadu), a girl killed herself after being shamed by her teacher because she was on her period.

Societal perceptions about menstruation are also fatal to young girls. Menstruation is perceived as a young girl’s entry in womanhood and often, this is associated with the belief that she is now ready for marriage and/or sex. The result is that child marriages are more prominent for a girl who has her first period at 10 years old. Young girls are often married off to older men which causes sexual exploitation and marital rape. In Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe, girls often suffer from early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases which have negative impacts on their sexual and reproductive health. Most often, the high costs of sanitary products encourage parents to marry off their daughters at an early age because their financial responsibility passes off to their husbands. This in turn means that the costs of providing them sanitary protection become the husbands’ responsibility, not the parents’.

Unfortunately, the consequences for women in employment are no different. A study carried out in Bangladesh showed that female factory workers used contraceptive pills to avoid getting their period. 73% of women do not go to work for about 6 days a month because of the unavailability of sanitary pads. The absence of women in employment not only affects them but also has an impact on the economic loss of a country. It is estimated that the United States suffers from a work loss of $1,692 per woman because of menstruation. In Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, female workers who miss work once every month causes a yearly economic loss of $13 million in the Philippines and $1.28 million in Vietnam.

As discussed above, the stigmatisation of menstruation interrelates with a lot of human rights such as access to education, gender equality, menstrual health, hygiene and the economic prosperity of a country amongst others. Indeed, it touches and affects several of the sustainable development goals. It has an impact on the health of young girls and women (Goal 3:health) and it also addresses the need for access to sexual and reproductive health services, mainly in the form of affordable and tax-free sanitary products (under 3.7 of Goal 3). There is also a need to destigmatise menstruation by educating young girls about their bodies so that they are not ashamed of period blood and can go to school without the fear of being shamed (Goal 4:education). Talking openly about menstruation will also avoid dropouts and will enable more girls to have access to primary, secondary and tertiary education (under 4.1 and 4.3 from Goal 4). This will ensure gender equality (Goal 5) between boys and girls in school and enable women to have employment opportunities in the future, resulting in the economic growth of a country (Goal 8). Removing the menstruation taboo will also empower women to be accountable for their bodies, as well as their sexual and reproductive rights (under 5.6 from Goal 5). This will encourage the need for women’s representation in governments and effective state policies passed by women for women.

Silencing or shaming the natural functioning of women’s bodies promotes unawareness and misconceptions about menstruation. Fertility which ensures the continual survival of humanity is something to be revered of not shamed. The battle against gender inequality has many layers and the relevance of menstruation on the impact for women’s rights has to be acknowledged and normalised first.

It’s only blood. Let it flow.

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