Breaking a cultural taboo

Women speak out fears of resisting deep-seated taboos associated with menstruation, viewed even today as polluting in much of India

The Wall Street Journal

by Maitreyee Handique
New Delhi
June 2011

The status of women in India, despite all the brave talk, remains as precarious as ever. This is, after all, a culture which not just condones, but actively encourages the termination of foetuses determined to be female. Other crimes of violence against women are routine. Can things ever change? We took a trip to the heartland to try and find some answers. Madhya Pradesh has among the country’s worst indicators as far as women are concerned. The sex ratio is skewed, the fertility rate is high, as are malnutrition and maternal deaths, and the state has one of the highest crime rates against women. In a series of six stories, Mint takes a long, hard look at some of the key issues. We examine how the state government is trying to prevent female foeticide and improve the sex ratio; a mass marriage scheme aimed at fighting poverty and dowry; how the state is trying to reduce maternal deaths, malnutrition and domestic violence. In the first of the series, Mint looks at how women cope with the deeply personal issue of menstruation, the bizarre restrictions they face and how they are forced to use home-made solutions during their periods. But some of them at least are finding some relief, with low-priced sanitary pads distributed by some self-help groups.

Dabhiya village, Madhya Pradesh: When Parvati Thakur started her periods, she felt less like a person, more like an animal.

As her menstruation cycle returned every month, the thin farm labourer with sad, vacant eyes would retreat to a dark shed next to her hut, where the family buffaloes lived. There, for the next four days, she’d eat and sleep with the animals, smeared in blood, dust and dung.

“Like a mad person, I used to just sit in a piece of cloth and bleed. I cried a lot,” recalls Parvati, who grew up in the village of Rehetiya not far from here, and where the women folk, according to ancient rites, move to the stables to menstruate.

Married off before puberty, the mother of two daughters says she felt dreadfully alone each time, as she’d rummage for rags along village roads to squat on, until more experienced women taught her how to tie a cloth to protect herself.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.