Busting myths and misconceptions around menstruation

Meet young girls from Uttar Pradesh who are leading from the front to sensitize communities and normalise discussions around menstruation  

By Furkan Latif Khan
Nineteen-year-old Suman stands with her peers at her house in Admapur in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Stayfree and UNICEF have been working together for over 7 years to improve menstrual health and hygiene management among adolescent girls.
UNICEF/UN0591783/ Bhardwaj
28 May 2022

VARANASI, India: Armed with information and confidence, young girls in Uttar Pradesh are taking on dated customs and myths in around menstruation in their community. Following trainings from UNICEF, these young trailblazers now volunteer as peer educators improving menstrual health of women in their homes and villages. They come from families where menstruation is a taboo topic and homes where they do not have adequate access to toilets and sanitation facilities. However, despite these social and logistical adversities, many young girls like Radhika, Aarti and Pragya are coming forward to sensitize their communities and normalise discussions on menstruation.  

Nineteen-year-old Radhika interacts with her 45 years old mother Durgavati Devi while she explains Menstrual Hygiene Management at her house at Amini in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
UNICEF/UN0591734/Bhardwaj
Nineteen-year-old Radhika interacts with her 45 years old mother Durgavati Devi while she explains Menstrual Hygiene Management at her house at Amini in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

In Amini village, Uttar Pradesh, 17-year-old Radhika Pal lives in a home without a bathroom or a boundary wall. At the age of 14 when she got her first period, she was handed an old rag by her mother and asked to use it every month during her menstrual cycle. She was not given any more information about menstruation, like most other young girls in her village who knew nothing about why their bodies undergo these changes. Older women often have a vague and ill-informed understanding of menstruation and steadfastly hold on to discriminatory norms and customs.  

Fifteen-year-old Aarti and 19 years old Radhika conduct a session on peer education as they promote Menstrual Hygiene Management at an Anganwadi centre at Amini in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
UNICEF/UN0591635/ Bhardwaj
Fifteen-year-old Aarti and 19 years old Radhika conduct a session on peer education as they promote Menstrual Hygiene Management at an Anganwadi centre at Amini in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

For three years, Radhika suffered in silence during her monthly period without a proper bathroom. In the absence of a proper waste disposal system, she had to dump her menstrual waste carelessly around the house. However, one day after attending a training session on menstrual hygiene awareness, Radhika was armed with newfound knowledge about her body and its functioning. Through these sessions, she also understood the vital importance of nutritional needs of the female body.

Radhika realised that menstruation was not a shameful process to be hidden from the world, a very natural functioning of the body. She began to promote cleaner sanitary napkins and proper disposal of these through homemade incinerators instead of careless dumping. She also began encouraging women to visit a doctor if they felt uncomfortable during their period. She faced a lot of resistance from the older women in the villages, including her own mother, however she was relentless to bust their myths.  

“Many women here believe that burning menstrual waste would make women unable to conceive or bear children,” explains Radhika.  

Nineteen-year-old Radhika reacts as she interacts with her 45 years old mother Durgavati Devi at her house at Amini in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
UNICEF/UN0591694/Bhardwaj
Nineteen-year-old Radhika reacts as she interacts with her 45 years old mother Durgavati Devi at her house at Amini in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

Aarti, another peer educator has been working towards better menstrual waste management to avoid sanitation hazards in her village. She encourages adolescent girls and older women to incinerate their menstrual waste in punctured earthen pots to contain the waste from spilling into the streets and streams of the villages.

Aarti also interacts regularly with young girls of her age who have doubts and questions about their own bodies and health. In their village, menstruating women are forbidden from accessing prayer spaces, go out in public alone or touch some foods.

Her efforts to drive behaviour change started in her own home where she nudged her mother to let go of antiquated beliefs and simultaneously provided her younger sister with correct information around menstruation. Her mother gradually came around and even provided her with a bicycle to enable her work as a peer educator. 

 

 

 Fifteen-year-old Aarti rides a bicycle outside her house at Amini in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
UNICEF/UN0591656/Bhardwaj
Fifteen-year-old Aarti rides a bicycle on her way to counselling sessions in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

Similar to  Radhika and Aarti, Pragya is leading a similar fight in her locality Kalika Bazaar. Pragya has been enthusiastically leading a mission in her village to convince people that period blood is not bad or impure. At the local Anganwadi Centre, Pragya and her aunt Seema who is an ASHA worker have created a vegetable garden to educate local women about a healthy diet. They have also encouraged their local priests to make proper waste disposal systems for women living in the temples.

In a community where women cannot enter temples or pray during menstruation, this is a groundbreaking step for the duo. Her work has also been lauded by the local district administration, leaving her feeling supremely encouraged to contribute further to her cause. 

These young women from the heartland of India are flag bearers of behaviour change and social progress. Through their efforts, their resolve and their vision they are reaching out to men and women alike, creating waves of transformation the attitudes of grassroot level Indian society towards menstruation and the reproductive health of women.