She may have missed out on a medal but Chinese swimming star Fu Yuanhui is being hailed as a champion back home and around the world for breaking the taboo that comes attached with periods in sports.
Fu attributed her team’s failure to make it to the top three in the 4x100m medley relay to the fact that she started her periods a day before the event, a remark that the Chinese media was quick to praise, given the silence that surrounds menstruation. Soon athletes and activists around the world picked followed suit.
Across the world, and more so in countries like China and India, there are a deep-rooted cultural resistance, even stigma, attached to periods. There is indignity and even a certain revulsion attached to it, which prevents open discussion. Which makes statements like Fu’s, or American musician Kiran Gandhi who ran the 2015 London Marathon while she had her periods, welcome.
For those who might think them over the top, consider this. Menstruation remains a major barrier to achieving gender equality in many parts of the world today.
Adolescent girls in developing countries miss five days of school in a month due to lack of access to sanitary pads and hygienic toilets in schools. This makes them fall back in education.
Menstruating women in countries like Nepal and India are seen as impure and a sign of bad luck. They are made to sleep outside their homes and eat out of different utensils.
If talking about periods openly and scientifically can help end this damage of a million lives, then by all means let us all start.
Standing outside the gate leading to her school, Anjali, a resident of Ghatkopar, Mumbai, 15, points inside to a partially broken door.
“This is the only toilet in the school which has running water. Now do you understand why I prefer to stay home on ‘those’ days”?
“Those” are the days when Anjali is menstruating when she, and most of her friends miss school. That is nearly seven days every month and the frequent absences Anjali fears will come in the way of her dreams of becoming a doctor. Many girls in her neighbourhood have dropped out totally shortly after hitting menarche.
What is a natural process marking the onset of adolescence in girls is fraught with huge challenges for girls in developing countries. Studies in different parts of Africa have documented how menstruation significantly compromises the education of girls.
The same is the case with India where according to an pan-India sanitation study by Dasra and Forbes Marshall, almost 23% of girls drop out of school when they start menstruating, and as many as 66% of girls skip school during this time. The same study also highlighted that 88% of India’s 355 million menstruating women have no access to sanitary pads – a lack that affects the health of women and adolescent girls.
An unsupportive environment in schools that includes lack of adequate toilets, absence of gender-segregated facilities, poor sanitation and inadequate water is one of the main causes. Another factor that explains the low school attendance is access to sanitary products that girls, especially in rural India, face.
A recent study focused on 53 slums and 159 villages in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh found that 89% of girls and women used cloth during their menses, with over half of them using the same cloth for more than one period. Two per cent used cotton wool and ash. Just 7% used sanitary pads.
The reality seems to have been taken note of at the policy level. In his Teachers Day address in 2014, PM Narendra Modi expressed concern about the large number of girls dropping out of school and the need to find ways to make sure girls don’t quit school early. The Swachh Bharat, Swachh Vidyalaya mission aims to build “at least one incinerator in the girl’s toilet block and a niche to keep sanitary napkins”.
What hold out greater promise is innovations in this field. Among the most prominent are those by A. Muruganatham, the Tamil Nadu-based creator of low cost sanitary napkin making units, who is aiding the Uttar Pradesh government’s efforts to reach total menstrual hygiene.
Guided by the UP government and Arunachalam, a pilot unit was set up in the village of Mahoba in 2013 to produce low cost sanitary napkins. The unit employs only women and is part of a decentralized enterprise model. This was coupled with a massive drive on menstrual hygiene across nearly 15000 schools in the district. The program was a massive success with the demand for Subah napkins far outstripping the supply and the UP government plans to take it across the state.
Also effective has been the UNICEF program in Kanchipuram district, Tamil Nadu, under which a vending machine disposing sanitary napkins was installed in schools.
Awareness too has to go hand in hand with affordability and availability. There is tremendous shame and stigma associated with menstruation and schools must address this, among boys and girls, to break the silence.