About those days
Apologies, some tricky issues and some plainspeak coming up, that some may find unsettling. Like, sitting through a commercial break with kids, only to have a lady spill a blue-coloured liquid on something she refers to as napkin “ ubiquitous word in your household, just not looking alike. She refers to ˜those days’, wetness, in tandem with images of women dragging their feet, looking wistful, embarrassed. You do your best not to catch your kids’ eye, taking special care not to change the channel to avoid passing an adverse message. With time, your kids learn what to ask you about, and what not to.
Or, as boys in school, we could only wonder after the girls we teased, played with, got beaten up by “ all in the most un-girly fashion – suddenly started counting themselves out of the rough-and-tumble of childhood. We dismissed them as sissies in the making. As adolescence took over, our mothers kept us away from shopping for toiletries, and we acquired an innate sense of which questions will earn us strongly disapproving looks.
Girls, tables turn on you early on. That discouragement from participating in demanding physical activities, words of caution, care, and concern about health and hygiene “ and in many households to this day, the edict of staying away from the kitchen, places of worship and all religious ceremonies, an imposed three-day fasting. Even if your families did not follow these, the lack of adequate sanitation facilities in public spaces, including educational institutions, cannot have been a picnic.
From a very young age, boys learn that women have secrets. And, from a very young age, girls learn how to keep these secrets.
Add to that the strong social angle: reluctance to buy your ˜monthly supplies’ from the man behind the counter, the use of special black bags for ˜your stuff’. Women may even have to forfeit the luxury to express bad mood or temper if they wish to avoid jibes like ˜must be those days’, something that men are never questioned for. I can’t imagine a week-long flu to keep me in buoyant spirits and full working capacity, much less if it happens with monthly regularity, even lesser if I am expected to work and behave as usual, failing which, I might become subject of jokes.
That is not to say that this can be compared to the flu or any illness for that matter – quite the opposite! We owe our existence to this intricate mechanism we have been endowed. I use the word ˜we’ because I cannot conceive of it being something that can be isolated on the basis of gender. As a race, a society, a group, this function belongs to us all. It does not deserve being clothed in superstitions, ignorance and insensitivity.
In fact, this part is as sacred and necessary as the conception of a child and the birth of a baby. Menstruation is part of that cycle that gives a woman the power to bear a child. We see shakti in her power to create. Then, why is it that we denounce this ritual of nature with ignorance, bias, superstitions, and the most unjust of all, indignity?
Women too feel inclined to employ euphemisms such as ˜being in time’, ˜being down’, ˜being visited by the monthly friend’, ˜chumming’, even amongst themselves, to avoid saying the word menstruation. When talking with men, a ˜not feeling particularly well today’ suffices.
Sure, we can be polite. As we have always been. It’s one thing for a class of people that enjoys the privileges of modern living, such as privacy, facilities, education, money, security. But, for those that do not, this tendency to alienate individuals on the basis of their bodily functions ends up smudging out a large part of our population into obscurity “ the morass of ignorance, lack of education, opportunity, and above all, dignity.
Why dignity? Well, of the 2.5 billion people in the world that defecate openly, 665 million people live in India. That makes it almost 50 million people in urban India. Which means, one out of every two Indians has to answer the call of nature in the open. And, while men can do it quite literally ˜on the go’, women have to hold it in until before dawn, or after dark, to avoid being seen.
According to an article that appeared in the Hindu (July 28, 2012), 66% of the women in Delhi slums are verbally abused, 46% are stalked, and more than 30% are physically assaulted while accessing toilets. Women have a far worse deal also because during menstruation and pregnancies, they need more privacy, more water, and more time. And, about 70% of Indian women do not get this.
Talk about lack of opportunity: Almost 23% of girls in rural areas drop out of school when they start menstruating. Also, 40% of schools lack functional toilets. Nearly 66% of girls avoid attending school while menstruating. For adult, working women, a similar problem is experienced at work, and home. A 2009 survey of the capital found that there were only 132 public toilets for women, as against 1,534 for men.
There is this other thing as well: our government makes contraceptives available at all public health centres for free. Shouldn’t this subsidy be extended to women as regards the availability of sanitary napkins? A study conducted by Plan India found that 68% of rural women cannot afford these napkins and use cloth instead, making them susceptible to lack of hygiene and resultant infections during its use and disposal thereof.
Making sanitary napkins accessible to women across the board is perhaps even more important than providing contraception. These products make lives more convenient, safer, and more productive. They are the chance for girls to remain in school, so they don’t miss out on opportunities, a chance for women to safely fulfill their myriad responsibilities.
Ironically, we find it easier to struggle for petrol prices, phone tariffs, schools for our children, but this subject gets pushed far back¦ mostly due to ˜shame’ – shame in talking about it. They are dismissed for being ˜women’s issues’. I sincerely object to that. These are our issues. Such labeling denies us a chance to be human, to own up the responsibility to protect and provide to a citizenry that has borne the brunt of gender bias since time immemorial. And, that’s a shame.