The Period Problem: A Stigma Around The Globe
By Anvi Joshi ('21)
How many people just got uncomfortable by the simple written word?
With the strides women have taken in defending their bodies, and with the openness that has arisen through elimination of societal taboos, menstruation should be a readily accepted part of a woman’s life.
Prior to scientific realizations about the human body, many religions and cultures stigmatized a woman’s period. From the Bible to secular laws, women were restricted and confined by society due to their cycles. Often, her period was seen as a sickness.
Somehow, decades later, these traditions and ideas are still considered fact in many nations, causing negative physical and psychological impacts.
In India, awareness on this issue has slowly begun spreading.
The 2019 Oscar-winning film, Period. End of Sentence and the release of the Bollywood movie, Pad Man, has allowed the message to reach more rural towns in India where practices that are harmful to women prevail. Pad Man follows the true story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man who sets out to create a pad that is available to women in poorer parts of the country who cannot normally afford it. He is ostracized and hated by many of these villagers, but he eventually succeeds by inventing a machine that wins an award and going on to address the UN.
While the film was incredibly successful, and broke many unspoken rules, it highlights an important problem that is still seen in the country today.
“The stigma is affecting people's health and mindset. People [in India] are limited in what they can do… As a result, girls there probably label themselves as [“impure”] and feel ashamed whenever they have their period,” said sophomore Annie Zheng.
A CNN article talks about the pain women and girls go through in India when they experience their period. Often girls are seen “skipping school, they're excluded from sports and they're shunned from places of worship”.
In addition, because women don’t have the ability to pay for or use sanitation products, they risk becoming sterile or infected when they use dirty cloths or fabric. They are often not allowed to acknowledge their cycles.
India isn’t the only place that holds these maladaptive views.
According to a Huffington Post article, in Japan, women are banned from performing traditionally more masculine jobs due to the fact that their periods make them “imbalanced”.
In Iran, Bolivia, and Afghanistan, misinformation and miseducation reign supreme. “There’s still so much humiliation surrounding the issue of menstruation in Bolivia that girls are urged, even by teachers, to keep their used sanitary pads far away from the rest of the trash.
Traditional beliefs hold that disposing their pads with other garbage could lead to sickness or cancer… In Afghanistan, there’s a misconception that washing genitals while menstruating can lead to “gazag,” which means becoming infertile… There’s still so much stigma and misinformation surrounding menstruation in Iran that 48 percent of girls there think that it’s a disease, according to a UNICEF study.”
All of these misconceptions fed to teenagers at such an impressionable age can cause feelings of shame and insecurity. Beliefs like these lead to self-hatred and body dysphoria, which in turn leads to depression and more serious problems.
As school nurse Mrs. Donna Moreen said “Any stigma is harmful for your mental health. I think people start to have anxiety over [their periods], to feel uncomfortable about it. When they get it especially, [they begin] worrying somebody else is going to know. Anxiety can lead to depression, and there’s already another mental health stigma that surrounds depression.”
And yet, that’s not all. Sometimes, the wrongful period practices can lead not only to serious physical and mental issues…but also to death.
Less than two months into the new year, three people had already died from the practice of chaupadi in Nepal. Chaupadi is when someone is considered “impure”. When used in terms of women on their periods, it means that they cannot eat their neighbors food, be touched, or be around their village. Instead, they are banished to a hut that, often due to lack of food, heat, or protection, leads to their death.
“Many women who follow chaupadi say they do so out of social pressure or guilt. Reports of sexual assault from men who prey on them while they are alone are also common” according to an article in The New York Times.
Legally, women cannot be forced into following chaupadi, but it is often the societal pressures around them and their family members that force women to follow the norm.
Freshman Keerthana Karthik said, “I think that cultural norms such as [chaupadi] play a factor in the stigma surrounding menstruation, since nobody wants to be considered an outcast in their society. Traditions such as this one, that bear potential to harm a group of people, should certainly be regulated.”
The main argument against the regulation of the rituals and practices pertaining to menstruation is that it infringes upon religious practices and traditions. While some people see these issues as something that is off-limits for the government, as they are thousands of years old, others call for change as time move forwards, citing these mindsets and customs as derogatory towards minorities.
Guidance Counselor Anastasia Marcella said “I think more education of what could go wrong in those kinds of situations should be available so that the women who are of age, or the mothers of these young women are aware of what the risks are.”
One may wonder why traditions on the other side of the globe contribute to problems here, but this isn’t just a problem on the other side of the world. The United States has its fair share of problems when it comes to women’s bodies and health, and menstruation is no different. No matter where the stigma or the prejudice exist, the mere existence suggests there is a greater problem at play that is prevalent across the globe.
The period problem, or the discomfort and lack of communication on the period is something that shows off the underspoken misogyny in thousands of countries, and the globe in general. Its relevance extends beyond the period itself because it demonstrates a time when women were shunned and considered lesser due to their bodies.