Taboos around menstruation in the 21st century

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Menstruation is a natural biological process. But the shame, stigma and misconception associated with it prevails across different parts of the world even today. Significance of menstruation varies substantially among different cultures and religious beliefs.

Some societies around the world celebrate menstruation. For instance, in Orissa, a four-day festival celebrates menstruation and womanhood known as ‘Raja Praba’ each year. The celebrations are marked by a number of games, indoor and outdoor. Girls play around on swings hung from trees.

In parts of south India, the first menstrual cycle is seen as a boon. Girls adorned in new clothes are given gifts and money.

Aboriginal Australians ritually bathe and apply beautiful body paint to young women on the outset of their menstrual cycle. Women of the Mossi tribe of Western Africa take time off from both work and family for the length of their cycle. Another tribe of West Africa, Dagara believe menstruating women possess heightened wisdom and the power to heal. Even the Cherookee Nation tribe in the US sees menstruating women as powerful and sacred. However, this is a rare perspective.

Menstruation is popularly associated with misconception and taboo practices which have an adverse effect on the wellbeing of women and girls. Menstruating women are seen as contaminating and impure.  Lives of women and girls are subject to a number of restrictions during menses.

In parts of Indonesia, India, western Nepal and among tribes of Nigeria, girls and women are shunned from their homes and are made to stay in cattle sheds or makeshift huts. This practice is known as Chhaupadi in Nepal. These huts lay on the periphery of towns and villages with no facilities. As they are compelled to live in these poorly constructed huts, they face a number of health issues such as respiratory diseases, urinary tract infections and pneumonia. They also face danger from wild animals or ever abuse and rape by other villagers as these huts are located in isolated areas. Young schoolgirls miss school every month during their menses, thus affecting their education and many just drop out.

Women are prohibited from entering the kitchen and cooking food, this is a common practice in rural India. They are left at the mercy of the family members to bring them food. Most women are faced with nutritional deficiency.

They are not allowed to touch curd, milk or pickle as it is believed that they will go bad. Neither are they allowed to walk through agricultural fields in fear that the crops will wilt or die. In Hinduism, scared animals such as the cow cannot be touched by menstruating women. It is a popular belief in Japan that women cannot be sushi chefs because of menstruation. The taboo states that sushi cannot be made properly because menses causes an imbalance in taste. 

Restriction on entering holy places, such as temples are prevalent. They are not allowed to offer prayers, touch holy books or take part in rituals according to Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist traditions.

The underlying basis for these beliefs is that menstruating women are ‘impure’. Such practices lead to the build-up of guilt, shame and low self-esteem which makes girls and women feel inferior.

According to a report commissioned by United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) shame, taboo and misconception surrounding menstruation lead to exclusion and discrimination of girls and women, which a serious human rights concern.

From Israel to Afghanistan, women are told not to wash their vaginal region during menses because it is believed to cause infertility, leading to unhealthy hygiene practices.

According to the UNICEF, traditional Bolivian beliefs misinforms young girls and women that disposal of menstrual pads along with other garbage can lead to sickness or cancer. Across the world, girls are warned against using tampons and menstrual cups as it is believed to lead to loss in virginity.

These are just a few taboos people have across the world which are holding women back, thus excluding girls and women from many aspects of life and pose as a hurdle for their advancement. In order to improve the status of women in society, it is imperative to address these issues. The stigma which has been created by these prevailing beliefs should be busted.

Menstruation is a fact of life. Period.

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