Evidence that the stigma surrounding menstruation remains alive and well in the 21st Century
It seems strange that a perfectly natural biological function faced by females post-puberty around the world, should provoke a negative reaction at all, particularly an opinion that originates from the unaffected opposite sex.
Yet it does, even today.
Many men are frequently “grossed out” by anything to do with the very same biological function that allows them to be born, ‘the menstrual cycle’. What is particularly surprising though, is that a number of women, usually for socially motivated or cultural reasons, find it an equally repelling conversation topic. This can lead to the suppression of knowledge on a topic that, while so important, ultimately boils down to nothing more than human physiology.
For those who don’t know, menstruation, also known as a period or monthly, is the regular discharge of blood and endometrial tissue (the uterine lining known as menses) from the inner lining of the uterus through the cervix and vagina.
In laymen’s terms, the process involves the release of tissue that grew to support a possible pregnancy, repeating after each menstrual cycle in which insemination does not take place.
You might ask, what stands in the way of raising such awareness?
Well, in the not too distant past, this natural physical phenomenon directly linked to the miracle of life was widely heralded as “dirty”, “unclean” and sometimes, an indication of “sin”.
The taboo surrounding the topic was and unfortunately still is, particularly prevalent in South Asia.
To illustrate, the Nepal Fertility Care Center reported that 19% of women in the country are banished from their houses to ‘Chhaupadi Goth’, which roughly translates to ‘menstruation huts’. Similar practices are also known to take place in rural parts of India as per the latest National Family Health Survey (2015-16).
Here in the Maldives, though we may be far from banishing ladies, similar misconceptions like the use of words “kuni ley” (rotting blood) to refer to menstrual blood, as inaccurate as it may be, are still in use.
In recent years, however, Asia seems to have attempted to make amends to bearers of vaginas in the region.
According to research conducted by WaterAid in collaboration with UNICEF, several countries have begun to include information about menstruation in school curriculums, highlighting the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene, in addition to implementing sexual/reproductive health-related policies and strategies.
In terms of societal impact, the release of ‘Bollywood’ box office hit ‘PadMan’, which tells the tale of Indian menstrual health pioneer Arunachalam Muruganantham, inspired numerous influential actors and actresses to challenge taboos about menstruation using the hashtag #PadmanChallenge.
The debate that ensued sparked much-needed discourse on menstrual health and associated rights, which in turn led to a number of protests against the existing 12% tax levied in 2017 on such products. In June 2018, the Indian government caved and scrapped the GST on women’s sanitary products.
In the argument against the #FreeThePad movement, which advocates for the provision of free sanitary napkins and tampons, it is often mentioned that in order to make life easier for women who often fall victim to these kinds of emergencies, access to such products should be provided, along the lines of detergent and other hygiene products considered as basic provisions.
The movement also equally seeks to highlight the need to offer sanitary products to poverty-stricken girls and women.
While menstruation occurs in all females from adolescence until menopause barring sufferers of rare and often severe medical conditions, what is typically a monthly occurrence, can present itself fairly irregularly.
Many females as well as males, display obliviousness on these facts. Comments such as “you should be aware of your own cycle”, “don’t you know which day you are on?”, “can’t believe you didn’t know this was coming” and “how is something that happens every month a surprise” that women report having heard, whilst experiencing difficulties managing their periods.
Studies indicate (in case the numerous women attesting to the fact were to be doubted) that women experience bleeding, pain and hormonal issues to vastly different degrees. As if that were not enough, these symptoms can be affected by several external factors such as diet, medications, physical exertion and stress.
Yes that’s right, all women are beautiful unique flowers (replace with an appropriate symbol if flora is offensive) and there is nothing anyone can do about it. *SISTERHOOD HAIR FLIP*
We may struggle with shaming and other social issues, but more than 300 million girls and women around the globe use rags, plastics, sand and ash to manage their periods due to limitations in affordability and availability. These less-than-hygienic practices cause school-drop outs in rural areas, pose severe health risks and lifelong trauma.
While this paints an extreme scenario compared to that of the everyday ‘dhivehi goyye’*, 70% of Indian girls and women not being able to afford menstrual supplies is something local ladies can somewhat empathize with.
While access to and availability of products is fairly adequate, a taxation of 6% is levied, making it one of the most expensive monthly purchases made by women. To put that into context, one of the cheapest brands of sanitary napkins retails at MVR 35 and contains 10 pads, so if only one is used per day, a female who goes through menstruation on a monthly basis still must spend MVR 420 annually.
Affordable though that may seem, it only applies if she sticks to the bare minimum and limits herself to a substandard product. If she is unsuited to sanitary pads and prefers tampons which are MVR 189 per box of 12, and is used to changing twice a day at least, it costs her as much as MVR 2268 per year. Similarly, if she uses slim pads and changes 3 times a day, it can add up to MVR 1500 to her yearly costs. Add on to that, most women use light flow and heavy flow products to deal with varying needs, and the overall cost doubles.
Does it really mean so much to a government, to keep taxing solely women and girls on a monthly basis, for a product she cannot live without? Is it truly a gateway that makes for leniencies on a number of related fronts? Or is it a minor budge that a government represented by a majority of men, in a country which is home to a majority of women, is simply not willing to make?
The good news is, for the first time, the issue found a public platform in 2018, highlighted as part of the opposition’s presidential campaign with Maldivian Democratic Party's Jazeera Raajje manifesto pledging to abolish the tax. Many recognize the popular Twitter movement under the trending hashtag #MassaruTax as a strong contributor to the recent rise in political awareness.
*Dhivehi word meaning lady
Yet the stigma associated with menstruation is far from being exclusive to Asia, let alone the Maldives. For instance, although a single day of menstrual leave every month has been a legal right for Japanese women since 1947, many still hesitate to take it, for fear of judgement from both male and female counterparts in a fairly competitive workplace.
Up until 2001, the British government charged as much as 17.5% tax on feminine hygiene products, though it has since been lowered to 5%. It should be noted that in June 2018, the British Medical Association declared that free tampons and napkins should be provided by the state across the UK. The United States also reports in kind, where only five states changed their laws to include feminine hygiene products under the list of non-taxed items.
However, most advocates agree that a failure to meet such requirements in developed countries should play no part in a similar botch-up by developing countries with smaller populations.
“It does not come at great cost to the government, and it is a small but significant gesture of support to women and girls in Maldives and everywhere,” offered Azzam Ibrahim, a young ‘Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights’ advocate.
However, as evidenced from the intense Twitter blow-up following a post advocating the initiative of a local café to provide free sanitary napkins, made by a beloved television presenter, social awareness may still have a long ways to go.
Many Twitter users seemed offended by the suggestion, responding with insults of their own and attacking the broadcast journalist's masculinity, seemingly over daring to advocate on behalf of feminine needs. Some users responded with comments that made light of the issue by calling out for the provision of various means of contraceptives instead, or as well.
Although companies are under no obligation to provide either product, as intercourse in public areas is an illegal activity in most parts of the world, one could deduce it not being a requirement. That said, no laws or policies exist in the Maldives that discourage providing a product that is a necessity to women.
A number of Twitter users expressed their agreement as well, advocating other similarly positive initiatives and suggesting a move towards greener alternatives for various other products.
On that note, while it is already difficult to acquire sanitary product options even in Male’ City, such as for tampon preferers versus the pad advocates, environmentally friendly options like the widely celebrated ‘Diva Cup’ prove even harder to come by.
To the common sense of this writer at least, it is fairly unclear why men and women are so adamantly against discussions of the topic, some restricting the word to only the letter ‘P’. Like many other issues blatantly ignored by those who are not interested, it seems that these problems can also be taken up by those who are affected by it, and supported by those empathetic to it without prompting a severe or aggressive reaction.
So, while ‘going with the flow’ may not come naturally to everyone, with all the sources of information available online, it is certainly a topic we can educate ourselves about, and react to accordingly.
It is thus quite refreshing to see that a number of businesses and other institutions have in fact joined the movement, pledging to #freethepad, which basically amounts to providing free sanitary napkins at their outlets, of their own volition, at no added expense to their customer base.
Yet it is not simply an issue of availability and taxation policies. There is much to be desired in terms of education provided by schools and other institutes as well. An assessment made by UNICEF in 2013 found there was a serious lack of programmes promoting safe and private menstrual hygiene for girls.
“We were not taught about our own menstruation cycles till Grade 7 when most of us had already experienced it,” said a female student from Thaajudheen School.
“I learned what I know on the subject from textbooks and later from my wife”, said another former alumnus hailing from Majeedhiya School. “It would have benefited me to know more and to understand what the women in my life go through every day."
Global experts agree nearly unanimously that education on the subject can contribute towards eliminating misconceptions for students of both genders by allowing them to understand the science behind the phenomenon. It cannot be fairly reasoned that all parents and households would have the knowledge and expertise required to disseminate all the necessary information, particularly to male students, though they should too be made aware on the subject.
Certainly, if armed with basic knowledge of how the female body works and the link to human reproduction, people of both sexes involved in policy making, educational forums and various other fields, can actively work to achieve a better future for all.
The act of carefully passing sanitary napkins wrapped in newspaper or otherwise, whilst glancing over one’s shoulder amongst hushed tones, in the same vein as a shady back-alley transaction, belongs far, far in the past.
Wherever one may stand on the menstruation platform, the fact remains that females do not have any control over the reoccurring bleed, barring minor organizational help via certain contraceptive supplements, which themselves come bearing a slew of side-effects.
Hence, the female menstrual cycle is absolutely a matter that should not be shamed on any basis, for any reason, on any occasion and least of all by those who do not have to experience it, dare I say, period.