It is always recommended that to maintain hygiene; a menstrual product should be changed at least three to four times a day. However, in rural areas, women change it twice, one at dusk and the other at dawn, in the darkness so that no one can see, which directly compromises health. Also, in rural schools, adolescent girls drop school due to a lack of proper infrastructure. At most construction sites, where women are working with men, face so much difficulty while menstruating due to lack of a good toilet facility. Then at shops or malls, we find women hiding the menstrual hygiene products so that men cannot see, and if somebody sees it, they feel so embarrassed about it. It reflects a lack of awareness and prioritization about women’s need for safe, private, and closed spaces with proper water and sanitation facilities. If men in the community were made aware to women’s need for safe and private spaces with all the facilities, the scenario must be very different.

One of the prime reasons why menstrual hygiene is neglected is gender inequality. Unequal power distribution between men and women has resulted in women’s and girls’ voices being suppressed and not being heard in decision-making within households, communities, and development programs. Recently, UNFPA Flagship State of World Population Report 2021 titled ‘My Body is My Own’ was launched, and for the first time, United Nations report focused on bodily autonomy. The report stated ‘Bodily autonomy’ as the power to make choices about your body without fear of violence or allowing someone else decide for you. Nearly half the women of 57 developing countries do not possess the right to make decisions regarding their own bodies, which includes using contraception, seeking healthcare services, or even on their sexuality. In few countries where data has been revealed, only 55% of women are entirely free to make choices over healthcare and related services, contraception, and the freedom to say yes or no to sex. According to NFHS-4 (2015-2016), only about 12% of currently married women (18-49 years of age) independently make decisions for their own bodies and healthcare services. For a quarter of women (23%), it is the spouse that mainly takes decisions about healthcare. Therefore these data suggest that men are the decision-makers and women need to depend on men’s advice for their health issues or any other problem. Working in the field of sustainable menstrual hygiene and interacting with both urban and rural women, I found many instances where women are suppressed and not allowed to take decision or speak up about their problems.

And these boundaries and domination by a male have led to cultural taboos, stigma, and shame around menstruation, including the belief that menstrual blood, and menstruating women themselves, are impure. During menstruation, women and girls are excluded from using water and sanitation facilities in rural areas, are unable to participate fully in any social, educational, productive, and religious activities, and, in some cultures, are even excluded from the home. Therefore, addressing both the practical and the strategic needs of women related to menstruation and menstrual hygiene management requires comprehensive programs that target menstruators and non-menstruators.

School-going girls in rural areas face many challenges while going to school during their menstrual cycle. They are deprived of proper water and sanitation facilities and menstrual hygiene materials, complete information, and supporting staff and peers. Primarily, these needs target girl students and female teachers, who do not provide the complete solution. Yet, one of the significant challenges girls face at school concerning menstruation is the fear of being teased by boys, which hampers their self-esteem. Physical and verbal bullying is one of the main grievances of girls in schools. One of the prime causes of this issue is that no one wants to talk about menstruation with the boys, and they feel shy in discussing menstrual problems with their mothers or sisters or their fathers. Also, the boys’ parents do not want them to spend their study time on such topics as they are not important for their futures. Therefore boys and male teachers in schools need to be informed and should be confident regarding menstruation, menstrual hygiene management, and menstrual products so that they can support female students and create a less stigmatizing environment at school. This is also very important as there are fewer female teachers in secondary schools.

How can we involve men in menstruation?
Gender equality requires a partnership between males and females, and it cannot be achieved without the involvement of men and boys. Men have an integral part to play in the conversation related to menstruation, as brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, and teachers. Men and boys might find it awkward initially discussing on menstruation and menstrual hygiene because it is believed that menstruation is completely and pure women’s personal affair. But once men get a good understanding and awareness of menstruation and menstrual hygiene practices, they would get empowered to act. The actions may be advocating for clean and private toilets, role-modeling or creating a period positive environment among the students, communicating care and empathy rather than disgust and shame, or even stitching pads for the women. Also, decision-making power for the health issues should be given to the women themselves.

Through training, men would get to learn about the importance of breaking different taboos concerning menstruation; along with learn the importance of ensuring proper sanitation facilities and menstrual hygiene products at school, home and workplace to manage periods. Both men and women have strong interest in learning about menstruation but they usually feel shy in discussing, so by training them together at a place with trust building and friendly conversation can help out. Men and boys can easily support women and girls while dealing with menstruation in domains like household, community, school, and work as they influence women’s and girl’s experiences and ways of dealing with menstrual health management through many roles, which include father, husband, friend, brother, student, peer, teacher, community leader, employers, and policymakers.

Author: Surbhi Kumari

Surbhi Kumari is a journalist by profession who hails from Bihar. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communicative English with Media Studies from Patna Women’s College and Masters’s in Journalism from Makhanlal Chaturvedi University. She has worked as Sub-Editor in India TV. Currently, she is working with SumArth as Communication Lead along with leading a project on sustainable menstrual hygiene in the naxal affected areas of Gaya district. Here is the link to her Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/surbhi.sharma.923171

Edited by: Divya Rosaline