Menstruation is probably one of the least talked about and ill-understood biological concepts. Despite being a natural physiological function of the female human body, similar to urination or defecation, the menstruation discourse is often shrouded by reticence.
This is because a complicated network of taboos and customs surround it. In India, it is not uncommon to find mothers who find it extremely delicate to broach the subject of puberty and menstruation. Adding to the already existing woes, women in rural India have to battle far more serious concerns such as the absence of toilets and limited options. Women usually go out in the open and have to hold until its dark. This places a huge strain on both their physical as well mental well-being.
In India it is not uncommon to find girls who stop going to schools once menarche sets in. Research has proved that onset of puberty is directly linked to a higher rate of girl children dropping out of schools. This may be due to a combination of factors ranging from the non-availability of resources required by a menstruating adolescent to stigma, not to forget the inherent discrimination associated with menstruation in many societies.
Adolescents are often left in the dark about what goes on with their bodies when they menstruate and more often than not, get sucked into the bottomless vortex of menses-related myths unique to every culture and region.
Breaking the silence
A UNICEF study published by Water Aid has revealed that 1 out of 3 girls in South Asia knew nothing about menstruation prior to getting it while 10% of girls in India believe that menstruation is a disease. 
However, many factors point out that the situation is not so bleak any more. Both government and non-government agencies are now working towards eliminating the negativity that surrounds the subject. The government has launched specific programmes focussing on female menstrual hygiene under the Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH) component. Accredited Social Health Activists, popularly known as ASHAs are trained to go out and talk to pubescent girls about menstruation and the need to practice good personal hygiene.
Online sites such as Menstrupedia offer a variety of solutions ranging from the provision of information about menstruation to hosting forums to discuss openly about doubts regarding menses and the many problems faces by women.
Despite all this, the best place to initiate puberty education is school. Although a sizable chunk of Indian kids drop out of school at the primary or middle school level, the benefits of integrating puberty education in the school curriculum far outweigh the misgivings. A healthy and secure school environment, both in physical terms like the availability of functional toilets as well as an easily accessible social setting, like an open teacher-student relationship will ease the students into the subject and aid in better understanding.
Menstruation myths busted
Similar to how our ancestors believed that the world was flat till science proved them wrong, for generations, several societies have developed and passed on their own theories about menstruation. Unable to comprehend the sudden discharge of blood and bodily fluids, hypotheses were created and some very unique inferences were drawn. Here are some of the more commonly circulated misconceptions about menstruating women.
Myth 1: ‘You cursed, vile thing’
Reality – Many societies believe that the woman is cursed and is a receptacle of the all things evil during her period. Nothing can be far from the truth as this. Menstruation is a perfectly normal biological function of a female human body similar to urination or defecation and has nothing to do with any external curse or bane.
Myth 2: ‘Unclean and impure, please do not enter the temple’
Reality –On attaining puberty, the female uterus starts forming a cushioning layer of tissues to receive and nourish the foetus on a periodic basis. When the baby isn’t conceived, the body flushes out the cushioning tissue and consequently some blood, which we observe during our period. If the female body is revered as the chalice of the divine, it should be so at all times. Why should those five days be an exception?
Myth 3: ‘Touch the jar and the pickle shall rot’
Reality – A mere touch of a menstruating woman has the power to wilt flowers and make the food spoil. These are probably some of the worst lies propagated that have absolutely no scientific backing. Menstruation has nothing to do with pickles going bad and should not stand in the way of women entering the kitchen.
(Did you know: In the 1920s, scientist Béla Schick introduced the concept of ‘Menotoxins’, according to which, menstruating women were capable of making flowers wilt and prevent bread from rising!) 
Myth 4: ‘Talking about menstruation scares the child even more’
Reality – In fact, it is just the opposite. When a girl menstruates for the first time, she is totally clueless about the sudden changes and would benefit by talking about it and knowing more about this natural process.
Myth 5: ‘Stay away and go don’t go out – Menstruating women contaminate the surroundings’
Reality – Girls are not impure or capable of any sort of contamination while they menstruate. In many societies, menstruating women are made to stay away from the rest of the family in a designated spot outside the village. This is dangerous on many levels. Abandoning a girl in a forsaken hut for long durations can make her vulnerable to men who wait for an opportunity to take advantage of the girl’s loneliness. Also, there is absolutely no need to discriminate and make a girl feel unwanted just because her body is going through its natural cleansing ritual.
Myth 6: ‘Normal blood good; menstrual blood bad’
Reality – The blood discharged during menses is not impure or defiled and is very much normal. The altered assumption may be due to the fact that menstrual blood comes out of the vagina mixed with the uterine lining tissue which appears to be slightly different from blood that is not mixed with any tissue.
A scheme to promote menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls was launched by the Union Government as part of its Reproductive and Child Health programme in rural areas.
Targeting adolescent girls between 10 and 19 years of age, the government launched its own brand of sanitary napkins ‘Freedays’ in a bid to wipe out the use of unsanitary rags during menses. A pack of 6 was priced at Rs.6, making it much more affordable than all the other sanitary napkins available in the market. 
Accredited Social Health Activists, popularly known as ASHAs were made responsible of taking the initiative forward and distributing these napkins to pubescent girls across villages. ASHAs are expected to organize monthly meetings in villages apart from conducting home visits when required.
While breaking the silence on the subject is the first step, a lot remains to be done. Menstrual hygiene management which essentially refers to the provision of safe and dignified options to change and clean for menstruating women should be given importance both at the school as well as the community level. Women and adolescents should be able to access sanitary products freely and proper facilities should be available to discard the generated waste.
The importance of providing safe and hygienic spaces for girls to attend to themselves while menstruating and otherwise cannot be over-emphasised. Providing separate functional toilet facilities for girls and boys in schools will further help remove the awkwardness children face away from home.
When adolescent boys are left out of the discourse, what follows is a whole lot of misunderstanding and perpetuation of the culture of ignorance and confusion about menstruation. Boys should be made aware of the changes that happen in their bodies as well as the girls’ so that they are able to appreciate them better.
Puberty education intervention should be made an integral part of the development process of adolescents. This will help both the boys and well as the girls to understand the physical and emotional changes the other’s body undergoes. Ensuring all the above mentioned amenities will go a long way in enabling girl children to treat their body with the required respect and care.
1. SSWM - Menstrual Hygiene Management - http://www.sswm.info/content/menstrual-hygiene-management (Accessed on April 29, 2014)
2. WASH United –Menstrual hygiene management - http://www.wash-united.org/our-work/issues/menstrual-hygiene-management/articles/our-work-issues-menstrual-hygiene-management (Accessed on April 30, 2014)
3. Menotoxin – When menstruation can kill - http://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2013/09/menotoxin-when-menstruation-can-kill.html
4. NRHM - Scheme for Promotion of Menstrual Hygiene among Adolescent Girls in Rural India - http://nrhm.gov.in/nrhm-components/rmnch-a/adolescent-health/menstrual-hygiene-scheme-mhs/schemes.html (Accessed on April 29, 2014)