NEW DELHI: In bid to break taboos and raise awareness about the importance of hygiene during menstruation, the Delhi government organised a rally to celebrate International Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28 May. The rally began at 7:00 am from Rajiv Chowk Metro Station Gate no 6 and proceeded towards Sansad Marg to end at the NDMC Convention Centre where a series of speeches and a street play of Ashmita Theatre Group -- led by the Indian theatre and Cinema actor Shilpi Marwaha -- was organised. The rally was flagged off by Delhi's Women and Child Development Minister Sandeep Kumar. The idea behind the rally was to motivate people to speak up, to create a united voice for women and girls to break the silence around menstrual hygiene management. The event was organised by the Department of Women and Child Development, Delhi Government, in association with Sachi Saheli (NGO). The rally gained involvement of people of both gender and of all ages who came to show their support for the cause by participating in the rally and debunk menstrual myths.

Flagging off the rally, Sandeep Kumar, Delhi’s Women and Child Development Minister said “Any movement starts from the masses, government takes initiative like this but it gets empowered by masses. So, I request people to join the movement and support the noble cause”.

In the convention, the Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women said “ The parents have a role in this that they need to play, they should see, they should understand and guide their daughters that it’s not a big thing. If it’s stained, it’s okay. It’s not the end of life, in fact a matter of being proud.”

After this Delhi’s renowned Ashmita Theatre Group followed with an energetic, captivating and expressive play that put forth the scenarios that girls face, the humiliation they go through at school, college and even at home during their menstruating days. Shilpi Marwaha, theatre and cinema actor, leading the Ashmita Group said “ A girl is banned to enter either a mosque or temple, from where does this question of impurity arise. Menstruation is as common as growing of hair, growing of bones, any girl doesn’t do anything for this”.

Even though all women menstruate -- that’s over half the population of this world -- the subject is still a taboo. This is evinced by the fact that an estimated 3 of 10 girls don’t even know what menstruation is, or when they first started menstruating.

In fact, a study reviewed by Plan India notes that around 23% of adolescent girls in the age-group 12-18 drop out of school after they begin menstruating because of inadequate menstrual protection like sanitary napkins; those who are in school absent themselves for an average of five days a month.

Let’s have a look at some of the taboos surrounding menstruation.

Global and religious menstrual myths:

In Iran, menstruation is not just a taboo, it’s a disease. In Malawi, you can’t even mention menstruation. Women in Afghanistan are taught that bathing during your period leads to infertility. Parts of Japan think that menstruation make women unsuitable for jobs like a sushi chef. In Bolivia, people believe that improper disposal of pads could cause cancer. Tradition in Zambia dictates that menstruating women aren’t allowed to eat salt.

And here are some lesser known menstrual taboos existing in different religions. As per Jewish court of law, Halaka, women during their menstruating days are considered as a physical and spiritual danger to men and no one can even eat their leftovers. In Christianity, it is believed that menstruating women would cause problems to society. And in Buddhism, menstrual blood is considered dirt or poison.

Menstruation has always been such a hush-hush subject and had numerous taboos and myths associated with it in India. Most of these myths stem from the conditions of women in olden times and are not relevant anymore. However. they have somehow gotten intertwined with religious beliefs and practices over time. So dispelling these myths in an insensitive or ill informed way could lead to hurting the sentiments of various religious groups. Still, there are some changemakers in the society, who have been successful at a certain level in breaking the taboos, making people aware and helping women and girls in menstrual hygiene management.

Changemakers breaking the taboos:

Aditi Gupta, the Founder of Menstrupedia, has been working relentlessly in her effort to educate society about menstrual health and hygiene through her website and a comic called Menstrupedia. Aditi’s efforts are commendable, but her journey is even more inspiring. She hails from a very small semi-urban town called Garhwa in Jharkhand. Growing up in a conservative middle class family, Gupta was familiar with the taboos surrounding menstruation since an early age. The response Aditi has received has been quite overwhelming. Their culturally sensitive approach of breaking the taboo associated with menstruation has been widely accepted among girls, parents and educators. The site has one lakh visitors every month, and the Menstrupedia Comic has even shipped to South America and Philippines. Such has been the response that they have volunteers ready to translate the book into eight different Indian languages and three different foreign languages. An audio-visual app of Menstrupedia has also been launched on this International Menstrual Hygiene Day.

Another changemaker in this list is a man from South India. Arunachalam Muruganantham, known as the Menstrual Man of India, a school dropout from a poor family in southern India has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads. Muruganantham says that he was shocked to learn that women in some districts don't just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash. Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene - it can also affect maternal mortality. So, contrary to a large-scale production model which requires Rs.3.5 Crores as initial investment, Sarugantham’s Jayaashree Industries sanitary napkin-making machine can be made available to a buyer for approximately Rs.65,000. Recently, his machine has been brought by many other companies abroad.

And being young and creative, the changemakers in the list from whom the young students can get inspired are some university students of New Delhi; Jigyasa, Manohar, Kashika, Namita, Archit, Mehul and Khushi who are running a campaign kind of initiative called Let’s Speak Up. They organize seminars, intervention sessions, contests, make short films to spread a wave among students to open up and speak about menstruation as a common occurring breaking the taboos around it. And successfully expanding their initiative, they’ve now got students from Nepal, Hyderabad and Banasthali with them maiming the menstrual myths.