Women in India have remained silent for way too long.A lot of water has passed under the bridge since we last opened our mouth and used our voices.Only 12 % of India's girls and women use sanitary pads (others use unhygienic material as ash, tissue, newspapers,hay, polythene bags or dirty old cloth), 23% girls are leaving school with the onset of puberty( and menstruation) and millions live in the dark about what menstruation is, the sanitary material to be used, the importance of hygiene and self care, and the necessity to educate daughters.
Each girl/woman can be a powerhouse of guidance, inspiration and support. If each one of us takes the responsibility of acquiring information on menstrual hygiene for ourselves and our daughters and bid goodbye to silence, new statistics would be created. We would find 'our voices' and together fight against the innumerable injustices against our gender- why just menstrual hygiene?
An age old silence and the 'O moment'
The settings are so varied and the regions so far placed- be it women huddled around a lone lamp flickering into the night while we assemble for a conversation together in a remote village in my country (India), or a hundred school going adolescent girls smiling shyly in a session conducted in their schools, a mixed group of male and female teachers of an education institute looking to understand at their possible role or media personnel in a press conference- yet there is one moment in time when jaws drop, faces look at you, unbelievingly that you actually spoke out the word and I call that moment, the 'O moment.'
With the utterence of the word 'vagina' or 'youni' in Hindi, the movements and sounds stop in the broken down village temple at night, in the government school, in the staff room or the press club. In a country where women keep their heads covered with their saree tail , the 'pallu', speak in low and gentle tones and are not meant to raise their eyes to meet that of a man or an elder, this silence is expected, demanded and delivered by our culture.
Bring pride where there is shame
This problem is one of the reasons I am passionate about women's menstrual support and education around the world.I travel from one corner of India to another, walk through the remotest of villages in trying to reach as many adolescent girls and women and deliver the message that menstruation is a life giving phenomenon; the menstrual blood is not impure and to keep hygiene is to stay away from disease and live an empowered life based on possessing accurate information about their bodies, sexuality and reproductive health.
In my meeting 6000 girls and women in the last two years in India alone, I have seen or heard about bizzare practices from the mouth of these very persons and from local sources around menstrual hygiene, the lack of it, the consequence in morbidity, mortality and quality of life.
In Karang island on Loktak Lake in Bishnupur district, Manipur(India) the community women shared how one of them had suffered from foul smelling white discharge for years alone without ever sharing it with a doctor at the Primary Health Centre located in the mainland till one day she died at middle age.
Karang is 50 km from the capital city Imphal and one can reach this place by getting on one of theregular passengerbus services from Imphal to Thanga(at Rs 40 per passenger) and then getting on the regular ferry service between Thanga andKarang (Rs 10 per person). It would cost a little under 1 US dollar.
The Pharmacist of the lone medical store in that island reveals that the woman consultated him with an unexplained pain in her back and a dark shade of red in her menstrual blood. The Pharmacist suspected some complication related to reproductive health and advised her to go seek medical intervention.
What barrier prevented this woman from seeking medical help for such discomfort, pain and life-threatening situation?
It is almost as if women feel guilty thinking about their welfare.
The invisible cultural barriers
Statistics show India is one of the leading countries in the world where women die every year from cervical cancer and one of the major contributing factors is poor menstrual hygiene. Are these deaths and lack of knowledge on menstrual hygiene management occuring because India does not have good hospitals or is it because there is no political will on access to health services and sanitation materials by the people and women?
I am saddened to say that health infrastructure is a much smaller problem than the deeper and not so visible issue of the low position girls and women have in our families, households, villages,community and society at large and the gender stereotyping that conditions us to put a lock on our mouth and stop from asking for information, reach out to another individual in crisis or seek medical help.
I suspect the large number of women who died could also most likely be women who had attributes of keeping silent, in silence their deaths enfulfed them and buried their truth with them for none to know.
Before we work on increasing the number of hospitals, enhancing access to health services by people in remote and rural villages and by people who are poor and marginalized, we first need to break these cultural barriers of subjugating girls and women and blocking their right to good health, education, livelihood, safety, dignity, empowerment but most of all, to communicate and express her situation without making her feel like a sinner or a wrong doer.
Women can undo the damage done so far by being the agents of change. New statistics can be created anew.
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( 'Breaking the Silence' is a UNFPA National Laadli Award winning campaign that raises awareness on menstruation and assign its identity as a life giving phenomenon and not a futile physiology. It aims to banish myths, taboos and stigma around menstruation and secure dignity, clean and hygienic sanitary material for girls and women.)