Menstrual stigma is an issue faced by women across India. While more metropolitan urban areas may be thought of as abandoning the age-old perceptions that a woman’s natural menstrual cycle is a sign of impurity or uncleanliness, the reality is the stigma still holds.
While societal stigma presents one issue, there are instances where this stigma extends into employment issues. In many of these instances it is those in poverty that are affected the most, as unemployment leaves them facing starvation — a fact taken advantage of by some employers.
Maharashtra’s womb-less villages, the extreme end of menstrual stigma
At the more extreme end of societal impact of menstrual stigma is a situation currently being uncovered in Maharashtra. It was reported by the BBC that thousands of women in the state have opted to undergo voluntary hysterectomies in order to no longer deal with the issue of their periods. This disturbing practice is creating “villages of womb-less women”.
While some of these women are in their forties, reaching the end of the time in which they may opt to have children, many of the women undergoing the procedure to remove their womb are in their twenties. These women typically come from impoverished families — or have no families at all — making the extreme decision a harsh reality they face in order to gain employment. Others still are married young, and have no choice but to take up the work to support their children.
The primary occupation these women are involved in is sugarcane harvesting. During the harvesting period employees are expected to be available to work at all hours of the day and night. For those suffering from their periods, this leaves little time for rest or adequate washing — leaving them open to fatigue or infections related to lack of sanitation.
Contractors are already hesitant to offer jobs to women, claiming they may take days off during their period. For the women who are in desperate financial situations, they are in a position that is often exploited. In many cases if the individual takes a day off, they are forced to pay a penalty.
Activists claim that the high rate of hysterectomies in the area may be down to coercion by the doctors of the area. Due to the poor hygienic conditions, many women catch infections and, according to the activists, unscrupulous doctors encourage them to undergo unnecessary surgeries even if they visit for a minor gynaecological problem which can be treated with medicine.
These women are making permanent decisions regarding their body, while having none of the information regarding long-term effects. Many of the women who underwent the hysterectomy later complained of “persistent pain in her back, neck and knee” and waking up in the morning with “swollen hands, face and feet”. For some, these issues meant they could no longer work.
Tamil Nadu and the plight of garment workers
Tamil Nadu is experiencing an equally dire situation. In the multi-billion dollar per year garment industry, the backbone of the labour force is made of often impoverished women. In what the state government has described as an “atrocity” many of these women are being given unlabelled medication by their employers to treat period pains.
The information is derived from a Thomson Reuters Foundation exposé in which one hundred women working in the industry were interviewed. The women claimed a myriad of side effects occurred after taking the unlabelled medication. These ranged from depression and anxiety to urinary tract infections, fibroids and even miscarriages.
As in the cases in Maharashtra, poverty is the driving factor. These women cannot afford to take a day away from work and, so, when the employer offers medication — claimed to not even be administered by a medical professional in most cases — they take them up on the offer.
Education is the key to reducing stigma
A lack of knowledge of the menstrual cycle and correct sanitation methods can be a danger to an individual’s life. The instances in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra demonstrate the more extreme end of the spectrum, with drastic or unsafe practices putting lives directly in danger.
The large number of those who suffer from illnesses linked to menstruation are not taking extreme measures, to the contrary it is far more mundane behaviours that are increasing the risk of disease. In a recent example highlighted by Health Issues India, even a reluctance to dry underwear on a washing line outside — for fear of potential judgement by neighbours — can increase the risk of disease.
“Bacteria requires moisture to grow. If panties are not dried properly, microorganisms get a chance to grow and may cause different types of diseases,” said Dr Jaydev Patel, senior microbiologist at Aspire-Labs, London.
Education, particularly of the younger generations, could aid in normalising periods. Rather than viewing them as a sign of impurity, perception needs to shift to acknowledge the reality that they are simply another biological process. Failure to do so will allow extreme and often damaging behaviours to permeate into another generation for fear of the judgement of their peers.