Menstrual Health and Hygiene: Creating Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity
As part of our initiative on Prenatal Education, we have taken up a larger research project on menstrual health and hygiene, particularly in the light of Indian cultural perspectives and insights on this topic. We propose to do workshops and extended courses in this area in the coming years. Presented below is our rationale for taking up this research project, as prepared by Dr. Beloo Mehra.
Menstruation is a natural biological process that women undergo during a major period of their lives. Because of its connection with fertility and pregnancy, menstruation is closely linked with womanhood suggesting some of the fundamental differences between men and women at many levels including physical, emotional and psychological. It is no wonder then that over the ages, menstruation and related practices have figured significantly in the evolving perceptions of different societies and cultures across the world toward women, man-woman relationships, and the place and role of women in society as a whole.
A Great Push to Promote Menstrual Hygiene and Health
In the past few years, promoting menstrual hygiene and health, especially among the girls and women in developing countries, has suddenly become an ‘in-thing.’ In addition to the campaigns being led by various NGOs, CSRs, and other social agencies, the United Nations too has been supporting this important cause. Given that menstrual health is often closely connected with not only the reproductive health but overall sense of well-being of girls and women, any well-meaning effort to promote menstrual health is welcome because it is a step toward improving overall public health in the society.
Uncovering the Assumptions and Misperceptions, Contextualising the Work
At the same time, it is equally important to situate these efforts to promote menstrual health and hygiene in the appropriate cultural and sociological contexts. For example, behind many of the programmes there is an underlying assumption that girls and women in developing countries, particularly India, generally have poor menstrual health often resulting from lack of proper education, lack of availability of menstrual hygiene products, and the continued use of several non-scientific traditional menstrual practices.
Several comparative research studies, in fact, indicate that this is not the case. Some field studies have also revealed that often the use of traditional menstrual hygiene practices by girls and women in many parts of rural India not only makes much greater sense for various reasons but also does not really have any adverse effect on the overall menstrual health.
Additionally, many of the campaigns to promote menstrual health are also based on an assumption that most girls and women in traditional societies such as India have to suffer many restrictions because of several cultural beliefs and practices related to menstruation. There is a tendency to put down certain cultures and religions on the basis of such assumptions and preconceived biases resulting from either lack of proper cultural sensitivity and awareness or simply a disinterest to study deeper the reasons behind some of the cultural beliefs and practices related to menstruation.
For example, in the recent times, menstruation has been in the middle of the controversy surrounding the issues of temple entry, gender equality, etc. Such controversies which are often the result of incorrect or incomplete knowledge about various cultural practices and their evolution over time, generally create more confusion surrounding the issue and often leads many people, both men and women, to feel a sense of alienation and disconnect from their cultural and religious backgrounds.
Need to Develop a Holistic Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity
We believe that while it is important to discuss and highlight various issues related to menstrual health and hygiene in India, the conversations surrounding the topic must happen at a deeper level. Also, there is a great need to promote a deeper and holistic awareness as well as a greater cultural sensitivity on various aspects related to menstruation, instead of reducing the entire effort to promoting certain menstrual hygiene products.
It is no surprise that today many young Indians, in their zeal to ape everything Western and confusing Westernisation with modernity, feel a sense of strong disconnect from their cultural backgrounds. Much of the ignorance exists simply because our present ‘modern’ education has conditioned us to think that only a materialistic-rationalistic view toward life, identity, health, gender, individualism, society, culture, religion, etc. can be a modern and hence universally generalizable view. As a result, every other ‘cultural’ or ‘traditional’ view toward any of these things is considered just some ‘localised’ variant, not at all relevant for our modern times and contexts.
It is important to address such misconceptions if we wish to prevent further cultural-uprooted-ness among younger generations of Indians.
- To promote a deeper awareness and cultivate a greater cultural sensitivity toward various issues related to menstruation. It will give the learners a deeper psychological understanding of menstruation and its relation with womanhood and overall sense of identity and self-worth. Insights from Yogic and Ayurvedic traditions to be given special focus.
- To help learners move away from a superficial and sensationalist view toward the sensitive topic of menstruation and menstrual health, by encouraging open-minded conversations and through study of various aspects related to this topic.
- To facilitate among the learners a deeper examination of some of their own biases and wrong assumptions resulting from either misinformation or misperception or both.
- By inculcating a deeper cultural sensitivity toward the topic of menstruation and related areas, to facilitate the self-development of the younger generations in order for them to exercise greater personal responsibility toward their role in creating a more conscious humanity.
- To do a cross-cultural review of menstruation related beliefs, practices and customs will be presented. Learners will be encouraged to explore why it is important to first deeply examine and understand the essence of certain traditional practices and customs before beginning the conversation about how they can or should change over time.
- To promote a deeper awareness and cultivate a greater awareness and sensitivity toward menstrual health and hygiene practices.
- To address various practical topics related to menstrual health and hygiene practices, with a particular focus on insights from Ayurveda related to menstruation and common menstrual disorders.
- To provide opportunities for students to critically evaluate some of the research done on various issues related to the overall menstrual health of women and girls in India.
- To equip learners, especially women learners, with a specific knowledge and skill-based training which they can use for their future work if they choose to do so. Students will be given an opportunity to undergo basic training so that they are prepared to work in their local communities, and/or reach out to schools and colleges in their areas and promote the much-needed awareness about this significant public health issue.
- To conduct thorough research on the topic by reviewing a large body of published scholarly and other literature on the topic.
- To develop a cross-cultural understanding of the topic by researching how different cultural traditions throughout the world deal with the various issues related to menstruation and women’s identity and self-worth as connected with this.
- To design short workshops to be offered at local schools and colleges.
- To design semester long courses on the topic.
- To design action-oriented training component for young female college students.
Our Work So Far…
Book Review – published HERE.
Semester-length soft core course designed by Dr. Beloo Mehra and approved by Board of Studies of Center for Women’s Studies, and Academic Council, Pondicherry University.
Date: 2-3 March 2020
Venue: Seminar Hall - I, School of Social Sciences & International Studies, Silver Jubilee Campus, Pondicherry University
As a collaborative effort with the Center of Women Studies, Pondicherry University, a two day workshop on ‘Menstrual Health and Hygiene – Creating Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity’ was organized. This was a first step towards taking forward the course on the above topic designed by AuroBharati and approved to be offered by the Center for Women Studies, Pondicherry University as a soft course.
The program was inaugurated on 2nd March 2020 with Prof. K. Moorthy, Dean, School of Social Sciences & International Studies, PU as the Chairperson , and Dr. Uttareswar Pachegaonkar, Director, Sri Aurobindo Center for Homeopathy, Sri Aurobindo Society as the guest of honor to address the seminar. Dr. C Aruna Head (i/c) Centre for Women’s Studies, PU, began the workshop with her welcome address. This was followed by an introduction to the workshop by Dr. Sampadananda Mishra who explained about the need and the scope of such topic in the present time. He emphasised that the various misconceptions, taboos, misunderstandings and blind beliefs connected with menstruation must be addressed and a healthy awareness must be created among the young and the older ones for cultivating a greater cultural sensitivity and menstrual health and hygiene practices. Dr. Uttareswar Panchegaonkar in his special address spoke about the menstrual health care that one has to take from the point of view of medical science. Prof. K Murthy ji in his presidential address highlighted the need for conducting such workshops and encouraged all participants to actively take part in the workshop and learn as much as they could. The inaugural session ended with the vote of thanks by Dr. Ashita of Center for Women Studies, PU.
The first technical session of the workshop began with Dr. Sampadananda Mishra’s interactive session on ‘A deeper cultural and psychological understanding of menstruation’. Dr. Mishra started with a few questions related to the cultural taboos, religious beliefs connected with menstruation and then explained about the deeper psychological dimension of the menstruation highlighting ancient Indian insights. He also dealt with the man and woman relationship, the feminine principles, some misconceptions and misunderstanding about the menstruation. As for the social aspects, Dr. Mishra explained how culturally menstruation is viewed as sacred and explained how The Mother said that women should engage is normal activity as far as was possible for each individual. In earlier times, we had a system where women where made to rest during the time of menstruation and they did not carry out their normal tasks. This gave them the space and time off from their schedule to focus on things that were important to them. This system also provided for a in-built health check, as a few participants spoke about how their mother / sister / wife had menstruation related problems but felt too constrained to tell their families about it. While this system now attaches the stigma of impurity to menstruation, we now are seeing alternative coming into existence. There are companies which offer paid leave for women on the days of their menstrual cycle and the red tent temple movement provides safe spaces for women to share their experiences of womanhood could be a possible answer to provide emotional support.
This was followed by panel discussion on “Modern Red Tent Movement” moderated by Dr. C Aruna with Dr. R. Nalini, Dept. of Social Work, Dr. S. Haripriya, Dept. of Food Science & Technology, Dr. E. Sreekala, School of Education of Pondicherry University. The participants witnessed an intense session on various aspects related to the Red Tent Movement. While Dr. Haripriya dealt with the food and nutrition aspect, Dr. Nalini dealt with the socio-cultural aspects and Dr. Sreekala dealt with the present situation and highlighted that right education with regard to menstruation is the need of the time. She also spoke on the relevance of a space for woman going through difficult times, be it the menstruation period or pre-menopause or just any other situation. It can be space for open talk, sharing, companionship and support from fellow beings. Here is the relevance of the the Red Tent. This should be space where one talks about menstruation, health and hygiene irrespective of caste, creed, religion or any other limiting factors. She also mentioned about the environment friendly practices during menstruation which could be modified and adopted for comfort and health.
After the lunch break Dr. Kalyani from Rajapalayam, spoke on the Power of Womanhood. By illustrating a few real life examples she explained how one can even use mensuration as a power of womanhood.
The last session of the first day was a very useful session conducted by Dr. Arati Sharma and Dr. Uttareswar Pachegaonkar, Directors, SACH, on Maintaining healthy lifestyle and dealing with menstrual irregularities. Dr. Arati Sharma explained the details of the menstruation process purely from the point of view of medical science, This included both physical and psychological issues connected with menstruation. Dr. Pachegaonkar dealt in detail about the daily healthy practices to prevent many health issues. This included how to manage daily activities like taking food, drinking water, having proper sleep etc. While Dr. Arati Sharma explained the biological aspects of menstruation and the related changes in the body, Dr. Uttareshwar Pachegaonkar gave us pointers on how to lead a healthy lifestyle.
The second day started with an interaction with the participating students who shared their views on the first day sessions. Most of the students appreciated the sessions by Dr. Arati Sharma and Dr. Pachegaonkar as helped them getting many practical tips for living healthy life and how to manage health issues connected with menstruation. They also shared that Dr. Sampadananda Mishra’s thoughts helped them understanding the deeper psychological and cultural issues connected with menstruation. The panel discussion had a good impact on them with regard to the current understanding of the menstruation issues. Dr. Kalyani’s session helped them understanding the power of a woman.
The next session was more of an informal session facilitated by Dr. Prabhjyot Kulkarni, a well-known educationist who, through simple activities created an awareness about leading a conscious life for a future humanity. The participants were asked to write down and share their thoughts and ideas after meditating on themselves. She also highlighted the purpose of life and how to organize life’s activities in order to live a conscious life. Dr. Kulkarni’s session explored methods of introspection and finding a greater degree of mental well-being. It would be wonderful if we used these tools while interacting with the larger communities as we would then interact from a space of honesty, integrity and harmony.
After a short break for tea the next session was conducted by Ranjana Swain, a Yoga Instructor on cleansing practices for body and mind through Yoga. She taught the participants various Yogasanas which would help preventing many physical issues during menstruation. This included yogic breathings like bhramari, shitali, anuloma-viloma; yogic postures like gomukhasana, dhanurasana, sarvangasana, pavanamuktasana, setubndhasana, sahshankasana etc. Participants said, Ranjana’s session on how to manage and discomfort during the menstrual cycle through yogasanas and pranayama was very helpful.
The post lunch session conducted by Dr. Kalyani was a practical demonstration of using sustainable menstrual hygiene products. This included use of menstrual cup and various organic pads. The pros and cons and proper use of such products were discussed. The session turned out to be informative and was very participative.
The last session of the workshop was facilitated by Dr. Aashita, Center for Women Studies. This session was the state of menstrual health in India: Myths and Misconceptions. She wonderfully presented many myths and misconceptions connected with menstrual health in India. The session was interactive and there were question and answer session at the end of the session.
The valedictory session was presided over by Prof. K. Moorthy, Dean, School of Social Sciences & International Studies, PU. The session began with a summary of the two day workshop by Deepa Vaitheeswaran. Giving her remark Deepa Vaitheeswaran said: It is odd that such a common occurrence as menstruation that takes place in about half the population of the world for around half their lives, is still considered a taboo subject to discuss. It is for each one of us to speak about this with openness and understanding to the communities we reach out to. It will also be helpful to keep in mind that while we look for equality for women, equality should not be measured as sameness to the masculine gender. Women are different to men and their equality lies in understanding this and not making this a limiting thought. Prof. Moorthy in his presidential remark appreciated the collaboration of Sri Aurobindo Society and the Center for Woman Studies in organizing this topic. He also wished that the students go with a positive note learning many useful and practical lessons from the workshop. Participation certificates were distributed to the participants who represented various departments of Pondicherry university, Tagore Arts College, and few NGOs in Pondicherry. The vote of thanks was given by Dr. C Aruna.