The onset of menstruation marks an important chapter in a woman’s life. Her body and mind undergo changes, preparing her for sex and childbearing. The hormones responsible for keeping her body healthy are released during the menstrual cycle. That’s why it is a barometer of her good health. Regular and timely periods mean everything is working like clockwork inside her body. A woman spends five to six years of her life menstruating, which underscores the importance of this biological process.
But in India, conflicting views about menstruation exist side-by-side. On the one hand, some Indian communities observe puberty ceremonies to celebrate the girl’s entry into womanhood. And on the other hand, girls are subjected to archaic practices during their menses and are considered “unclean” for those few days. They are made to sleep separately, use separated utensils and are barred from touching pickles or partaking in anything religious, thanks to the many myths about menstruation that have prevailed in the country.
In India, adolescent girls are a vulnerable demographic, discriminated against and neglected for their gender. The existing prejudices about menses affect their understanding of the menstrual cycle, which affects their education, health and dignity. But most of the times, women and girls are misinformed about managing their menstrual cycle, thanks to all the myths and misconceptions. This lack of understanding can lead to poor personal sanitary practices, adverse health effects and reduced productivity in life. Here are some reasons why it is essential to drive good menstrual hygiene.
According to a WASH survey, between 43 percent and 88 percent of girls in India reuse cotton cloths rather than use disposable pads. But these reusable materials may not be adequately sanitised using clean water and soap, causing skin diseases like rashes, redness and a burning sensation of the vulvar region.
UTI or Urinary Tract Infections
UTI is one of the commonest infections in girls and women of menstruating age caused by poor menstrual hygiene. Although the exact mechanism is not known, it is theorised that unhygienic practices create an abnormally moist condition in the genital area, inviting opportunistic bacteria to thrive and cause infections.
RTI or Reproductive Tract Infection
RTIs are a major cause of concern worldwide. The prevalence of RTIs in India has increased in India by 26 percent. Although the causes of RTI may be diverse, following unhygienic menstrual practices is one of the main reasons. And if it is not treated at the right time, it could adversely affect female health and the quality of life.
One of the commonest causes of infertility in women is the infection of the reproductive organs, which can be caused by unhygienic sanitary practices. Untreated RTIs can cause damage to the organs, resulting in infertility.
Miscarriages and Still Births
Poor menstrual hygiene and resultant infections of the female reproductive organs are linked to 10 to 15 percent of foetal loss through stillbirths or spontaneous abortions. RTIs caused by poor menstrual hygiene is also responsible for 30 to 50 percent of prenatal infections.
Poor menstrual habits increase chances of infection in the pelvic region, which can cause scarring and blockage in the fallopian tubes. This could result in the fertilised egg implanting itself outside the uterus, especially inside the tubes.
Poor menstrual hygiene can increase chances of infection in the upper and the lower reproductive tract. Women in India are generally not forthcoming about their sexual illnesses and rarely seek treatment. Leaving RTIs undiagnosed or untreated can increase the risk of cervical cancer. It’s telling that India accounts for 1/4th of the global burden of cervical cancer and the third largest cause of cancer mortality in India.
India paints a grim picture of menstrual health since a sizable number of the female population struggle without basic sanitation facilities. In the absence of clean water, soaps or even toilets, the country still lags behind in securing good menstrual health for its women.
Although some good has been brought about with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which improved sanitation to some extent, the Goods and Service Tax has undone some of the progress by levying taxes on essential amenities like sanitary pads. It’s a shame since a whopping 43 percent of Indian women already have no access to sanitary pads, according to a WHO survey and 67 percent are forced to borrow sanitary essentials from a friend, colleague or a family member. Many women from the lower rungs of the society resort to cloth, coconut husks and even ashes in place of sanitary pads.
If any change has to be effected in improving the health and livelihood of women, better sanitation and healthy menstrual practices should be encouraged, and providing better hygiene facilities should figure highly on any government’s priority list.
(References: Menstrual Hygiene Practices, WASH Access and the Risk of Urogenital Infection in Women from Odisha, India, Menstrual Hygiene: How Hygienic is the Adolescent Girl?, A descriptive cross-sectional study on menstrual hygiene and perceived reproductive morbidity among adolescent girls in a union territory, India)