KNS Statement: Break the Silence around Menstruation!

April 5, 2015

Statement in the context of padsagainstsexism campaign

by Krantikari Naujawan Sabha

The furore created around some university students putting up sanitary napkins on their campuses in Delhi and other cities across the country only reveals how little equipped the public sphere in our country is to admit any conversation, let alone assertion, around women’s sexuality or various concerns associated with it. However, the pace with which the campaign has spread from one university to another, without any organizational initiative, also suggests that there are those among the young today, particularly women, who are interested in reclaiming that space and are equipped enough to do it. We welcome the initiative taken by students in Jamia, DU, JNU, JU and other such universities and colleges where students have taken the lead in initiating this conversation. The responses to the campaigns though both evoke and reinforce the existing ideas around menstruation. Moves such as tearing down the pads at JNU and DU, the Jadavpur University administration suggesting a ‘disciplinary investigation’ into the matter, and the show cause notice served by the Jamia administration to students in response to the campaign give us an estimate of the resistance that even a minimal symbolic assertion of women’s sexual realities in the public domain is likely to face.

The taboo associated with women’s sexuality intrudes on various aspects of a woman’s life, including her right to mobility, taking her own life decisions etc. The onset of menstruation is portrayed as a rupture in the progression of a woman’s life which is irreversible. It marks a girl’s body as sexually active and brings into play a whole gamut of insecurities around it and translates for many into withdrawal from school, physical activities, sports and a more unfettered public life. Data reveals that in India, 23% girls drop out of school once they start menstruating. One finds several expressions in all languages that articulate anxiety around this supposed rupture that burdens women with shame and fear around changes in their bodies.

The concomitant restriction of a woman’s role in social life also manifests itself in greater difficulty in accessing common resources and basic services such as health care and sanitation. Even when made available, health care for women is often focused on reproductive health, more so on reproductivity, as in the capacity to reproduce, even at great cost to the mother’s health. Interestingly, menstruation despite being deeply associated with reproductive health is often perceived more as a problem of sexual health. This leads to the absence of any discussion regarding normal menstrual cycle in the public sphere until and unless menstrual physiology is disrupted to such an extent that it interferes with the reproductive capacity of the woman and becomes a concern for reproductive health. Dominant policy and practice therefore approaches the question of women’s health not from the departure point of their own concerns rather those of a patriarchal social order which regards them as little more than reproductive machines.

The wraps put around women’s own experience of menstruation also veil the fact that only 12% of women in India have access to sanitary napkins, while the remaining 88% are forced to use pieces of old cloth, ash, bags full of sand or straw etc when they are menstruating (AC Nielsen, 2011). The use of sanitary napkins itself is not necessarily ideal given the massive non-biodegradable waste that it produces or the discomfort of rashes and leakages that it causes to women using them, leave alone the adverse effects that chemicals and bleaches used in their production have on women’s health. The use of sanitary napkins therefore does not necessarily mark the high end of menstrual health and comfort. At the same time the limited access that women have even to sanitary napkins shows the extent to which the question of providing a hygienic, comfortable and socially and environmentally sustainable solution to the problems of women’s menstrual health and hygiene remains unanswered in our society today.

The invisibility of women within the home has over the past some decades been selectively, carefully and consciously remolded by capital into their visibility as consumers. Health and hygiene too have in that strain been packaged as products, using women’s aspirations for greater freedom and mobility etc as ‘selling points’. Products such as Stayfree and Whisper, or the wider range of sanitary products such as tampons and menstrual cups do speak convincingly to ‘the new age woman’. However, the staggering number of women still unable to access sanitary care marks the necessary limits of the category of the ‘consumer’ and the freedom it can bring to women, given that the objective of such technology is not so much to ease the discomfort of menstruation for women but to garner profits for the companies producing these products.

Under such circumstances, the question must be posed in terms of women claiming their right to public/private space and resources as citizens of a state that rules as much in their name, the concerns of women figuring not as sectional concerns but as the collective concern of society. The universalized provision of hygienic, comfortable and sustainable menstrual care to all women, irrespective of their social location is fundamental to fighting the taboo around sexual and reproductive health and women’s sexuality today. The availability of menstrual care products across spaces, including public spaces such as offices, factories, universities etc through vending machines and other means, to women across various social strata, in an open and comfortable manner, through which it is brought both in public view and public discourse will go a long way in demystifying and normalizing the use of menstrual care products. While the state today has under the influence of international conventions and development discourses introduced a plethora of schemes to dispense sanitary pads through School Health Schemes, Kishori Yojna, Ladli Scheme and ASHA workers etc. the attempts can at best be called fragmented and very limited. The schemes remain targeted towards categorizes such as ‘poor’, adolescent girls and rural women and are further fraught with failures in implementation. The quality of products dispensed under such schemes is often unsatisfactory. The vast landscape not addressed by the state has been left for private players and NGOs to pose as benefactors of women. Moreover, for sections not falling under any of the ‘targeted categories’, questions of menstrual health remain predominantly personal concerns with the state assuming no responsibility in the matter.

The silencing of questions associated with women’s sexuality has repeatedly been brought in for questioning over the past couple of years with movements against sexual violence and rape coming up in different parts of the country. These movements have spoken to a section of educated urban youth experiencing gender in a way very different from the generation that preceded them and have through their interventions created a new ground for articulating concerns around women’s sexuality. However a thorough exploration of the possibilities created by these movements and other such initiatives such as the ‘Pads against Sexism’ campaign requires that they be interrogated from the vantage point of a much wider and heterogeneous section of women, through their participation in these struggles, and the contestation of interests within the movement to forge a unity that can challenge the sexist, patriarchal order at its heart, without allowing it any leeway to excuse itself. The question of the collective reproductive health and wellbeing of all women is one such question which marks out the fault-lines within the movement as well as expose the limitations and superficiality of the emancipation promised to us by the market and its fellow state. At this juncture, in the context of campaigns such as ‘Pads Against Sexism’ it is important to foreground questions of reproductive and menstrual health as agendas of the entire progressive movement, raised from within different locations such as struggles against sexism, the women’s movement, the workers movement etc., establishing it as a concern amongst the masses as well as garnering inputs from specialized sources on a more gender-sensitive and environmentally sustainable use of technology to answer its needs. The government must be made answerable towards women for investing in technology and infrastructure to cater to their particular health concerns and not be allowed to leave this whole domain to the profit mongering of the market.

02.04.15

Subhashini Shriya
on behalf of
Krantikari Naujawan Sabha