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SINGH: Stigma behind menstruation must be discussed, eliminated

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Half the world’s population menstruates an average of once a month from menarche to menopause.  Most women menstruate from the ages of 13 to 51, making menstruation, alone, a total of 6.25 years in a woman’s life. Yet this natural biological process is still met with much stigma, taboo and discriminatory cultural norms. In many underprivileged areas, there is a lack of sanitary resources. Hygienic sanitary napkins are hard to come by, and quite unaffordable when made available. Along with a lack of products catered for periods, there’s a deficiency of clean water and soap for minimal yet necessary cleansing. The lack of hygienic products available has many side effects, the major one being the inconvenience it brings in day-to-day operations. In Leeds in the United Kingdom, a school reported that many of its female students had poor attendance records. Leeds is one of the more impoverished cities in the United Kingdom and living in a low-income household makes such items like sanitary napkins seem more like a luxury than a legitimate need. As a result, many of the female students tend to skip classes and stay home until the end of their periods every month. Students can’t miss school for a whole week every month simply because they don’t have resources available at their disposal. A Bolton NHS Foundation Trust study found that menstrual problems are the fifth most common reason for students missing school. The U.K. (as well as most U.S. states) has a tampon tax that simply makes it arduous for women to satiate their menstrual needs. But the lack of resources is not the only hardship women face.

In underprivileged countries, menstruating women are thought to be “impure,” “sinners” and “unholy.” There are myths about periods that need to be debunked, as they perpetuate the stigma. For example, in Nepal, menstruating women are thought to be impure and thus exiled to a small hut on the outskirts of their community and are forced to live there until their period has passed. To be singled out for a basic and natural body process can cause great stress and brings even greater shame to the woman’s life. The anxiety menstruation brings is a burden to many. Just last week, a school girl from Tamil Nadu, India died by suicide after her teacher humiliated her in front of her class. The 12-year-old girl had just hit the beginning of her cycle and stained her clothing and had asked her female teacher for help. The teacher, following old conventions, made the girl show the stain to the entire co-ed class, leaving the poor student in such misery and mortification that she felt she had to take her own life. The administration reported that the school had neither a program that educated the students on menstruation nor a sanitary napkin dispenser.

There is little to no support available for women when it comes to the issue of menstruation because the bottom line is that menstruation simply makes people uncomfortable. The discomfort stems from the orthodox beliefs from the past that have unfortunately carried over to the present. Destitute areas still condemn females from participating in everyday activities. Women aren’t allowed to shower as it is believed that it will cause infertility, they can’t touch or water plants as the agriculture will die, they can’t touch food or it’ll go bad, they are not even allowed to engage in their own religious pursuits. They are told that they are banished from the temples because they are impure until their menstruation passes. What are these archaic ideas imposing on the next generation? It’s teaching them that menstruation is shameful, that something is very wrong with them when they are going through it, that they are less capable and impure, that they should hide it and keep it a secret. It’s a lot of pressure. First, there are the hormonal changes a female’s body endures during this time. Mixed emotions, cramps, pain and bloating are only some of the side effects, and additionally they are burdened with these degrading societal notions that are being enforced upon them. “It’s simple: women and girls have human rights, and they have periods. One should not defeat the other,” said Hannah Neumeyer, head of human rights at WASH United. “Human rights are negatively impacted when women and girls cannot manage menstruation with dignity, but rights should also be at the heart of any solution.”

To demystify the myths and conservative concepts, educating others works best. There needs to be more ubiquitous programs that not only increase awareness and support, but also address the discrimination faced by women when these hardships are placed upon them. Education is not only important to women, but also to men, to fully de-stigmatize menstruation.

Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Got Rights?", runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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