By Adi Chowdhury
Menstruation, or periods, has long been a subject entwined in controversy. The winding history of gender issues is filled inescapably with superstition and taboo enshrouding the topic of periods. Many have deemed it to be an illness. Many consider it to be a mark of sin. Many think that it is a cause for shame. Many deem it to be a punishment from the gods. Many label it to make women “impure” and “unclean.”
All in all, such perceptions of menstruation are naïve, ill-founded, and propelled persistently by superstition and dogma only—no science, no reason, no logic, no humanity can attest to it. Subjugation and misogyny have often accompanied such taboos around menstruation, manifesting itself in the abuse and mistreatment of women.
The Global Conversation
The most beneficial plan of action we can take right now is enhancing the global conversation we should be having about menstruation. It is imperative that we engage in widespread and critical discussions about periods, and work to improve the world’s perception of it.
It is pathetic how much of the global society regards menstruation to deserve the taboo enshrouding it. Anyone genuinely concerned about the women rights violations caused by such taboos should be frightened by the commonness of such views. These views–that periods are marks of impurity and should be shielded from discussion–are what serve as fuel for such horrifying abuses imposed upon women across the globe.
Engaging in constructive discussion about an important issue serves to combat the prejudice that stems from it. Critical and thought-provoking conversations on a global scale will help raise awareness of the period’s plight and strengthen the scientific understanding that people have about periods. And where there is science, superstition crumbles in your fingers.
South Asia’s Present Plight
This situation is especially revolting in the rural regions of Nepal. Villages in the Hindu-dominated western Nepal have become infamous for their usage of the disgusting tradition of chhaupadi. This custom has been responsible for vilifying and undermining women and girls for decades on end. It completely and horrifyingly misconstrues menstruation, spreading the myth that it causes women to lose their “purity.” But that’s not where it ends—there’s more to this villainous belief. Women are not only looked down upon for menstruating, they are actively terrorized, abused, and cast away for it. Stripped of basic rights and dignity, Nepalese village women are treated as sub-humans if they are on their period, and deemed to be unworthy to live with the rest of society. The terrifying details of the chhaupadi tradition have been documented by numerous news sources, investigators, and activists, such as the acclaimed documentary photographer Poulomi Basu.
The trauma imposed upon menstruating females in such villages is horrific. As mandated by the chhaupadi tradition, women are cast away from society and all social events until they stop menstruating—even basic resources and necessities are denied to them. These women are forced to stay in a filthy hut or uncomfortable cattle shed for about a week. In Indian villages, these huts are known as gaokors. They are not allowed to socialize or interact with others at all, not even with their own family. The banished women are forbidden to approach society for days; even sources of clean drinking water may be tenporarily off-limits for them.
The fact that women who undergo chhaupadi are subjected to systematic abuse and suffering should come as no surprise. According to the a 2011 report by the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office:
“Women practicing chaupadi face both physical and mental hardship. As mentioned, women are often relegated to ‘chaupadi goth’ or cattle sheds where they stay in very basic, unhygienic and exposed conditions. According to custom, women should not be given milk or ghee while they are menstruating or pregnant, but should only eat flatbread with salt.4 This deprives them of nutritious food during their periods. As women are not allowed in the house during menstruation, they often engage in harder, manual labor outdoors as a result, including digging, collecting firewood and grasses and farm labor. These conditions take their toll on women’s health and make them more vulnerable to various health problems, including diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory diseases.”
The women’s ordeal within the confines of the cowsheds may be traumatic to say the least. Sexual abuse runs rampant, and cases of rape may go unreported due to the victims’ fears of being socially outcast. Thirst and hunger may plague the victims of chhaupadi. Separation from family, friends, and society, as well as banishment to such dismal conditions, can prove to be detrimental to mental health.
Dr Dilip Barsagade, the founder of local NGO Society of People’s Action in Rural Services and Health (SPARSH), had this to say: “We visited 223 gaokors in tribal areas and nearly 98% lack even a proper bed, leave alone electricity and other basic amenities. Most of the gaokors have temporary bathrooms made with bamboo.” SPARSH recently brought the abusive practice of chhaupadi to the attention of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India.
In 2015, the NHRC advocated the Indian government to take steps to enforce the ban on chhaupadi, yet it unsurprisingly continues. The Supreme Court of Nepal illegalized the practice in 2005, but the western rural regions persist in their awful practice of this horrifying tradition.
This taboo around menstruation is clearly unsubstantiated and baseless. Having periods is a necessary part of growing into a healthy, beautiful woman that all girls are destined to evolve into. The roots of menstruation are purely medical and health-based in nature. It is far from the “punishment for sin” or “mark of impurity” that numerous religions and belief systems claim it is. Such beliefs can only be deemed “silly”, only to put it crudely—but shaming women for being on their period doesn’t make much sense beyond that crude label.
Period-shaming only vilifies a natural process that bears no evil, no harm, no impurity. As is the case with all unnecessary taboos, education is the propeller for reformation. Only can scientific education upheave decades of superstitious tradition and illogical culture. Only can the tools of critical thinking help upturn the baseless taboo that calls South Asia its home.