How is menstruation related to human rights?

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Anshruta Poddar

Menstruation and Human Rights, two seemingly unrelated concepts, are in fact intrinsically interwoven and mutually inclusive. Taboos associated with menstruation have led to the discrimination and social-exclusion of menstruators since time immemorial. Gradually, the awareness that menstruators should not be penalized for something completely normal and healthy, has amplified manifold. The concept of ‘menstruation with dignity’ is finally picking up steam throughout the country. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the United Nations, signed in Paris on the 10th of December, 1948, has listed 30 basic human rights that every human should be entitled to irrespective of caste, creed, nationality or gender. It is appalling to note that the taboos and orthodox customs associated with menstruation can be considered an infringement of several human rights listed in the declaration. This is not only unacceptable, but also pitiful and shameful to say the least.

Here’s a list of some of the human rights that have been adversely impacted as a result of regressive menstrual practices-

  • All human beings are free and equal: India, being a patriarchal society, has always fallen behind with regards to gender equality. Menstruators have accepted the atrocities thrown at them, almost as a way of life. Whether it is being asked to stay away from others, not being allowed to cook or visit temples, menstruators are forced into a place of subordination. The upsetting part though, is that a large chunk of this oppression comes from the elderly female members of society. Instead of uplifting menstruators, they oppress them, even though they themselves have been slaves to the suppression during their menstruating years.

  • No discrimination: When adolescents first hit menarche, in some cultures it is normal to keep it under wraps until the family is finally able to come to terms with it. This, is a completely senseless and baseless way to deal with menstruation as it makes the menstruator feel guilty for something that they should not be shameful about. From a tender age, menstruators feel discriminated against and their mental health can also take a hit. Such injustice hampers the belief systems of young minds, and they may feel like they are the lesser of the two sexes for a lifetime.

  • No torture or inhuman treatment: A shocking practice followed in some villages involves menstruators being sent away to period huts called ‘gaokors’ during menstruation. These huts have no electricity, are extremely unkempt and unhygienic, and are often kilometers away from a proper source of water. Living in such huts is inhuman and is bordering on torture. Menstruators absolutely dread living in these huts with extremely poor sanitation and forests nearby. During their stay they are not allowed any other human interaction as they are considered impure and dirty. Such an exclusion from public life, is a grave infringement of human rights.

  • Right to privacy: The lack of sanitation facilities and bathrooms in several remote parts of the country, make privacy a big issue for the female sex especially during menstruation. Menstruators in several rural areas, do not step out of the house for the 5-6 days of menstruation, in the fear of staining and not having access to a bathroom. ‘Menstruation with dignity’ is feasible only when menstruators have access to adequate resources, sanitation facilities as well as privacy when changing sanitary products.

  • Right to Work: During menstruation, menstruators in orthodox communities are expected to stay within the confines of their homes or move to period huts. During such time, they are unable to work or contribute productively, simply due to social stigmas and ancient beliefs. This is an infringement to their right to work. Capable and intellectual individuals are being deprived the ability to earn wages for several days a month.

  • Right to Education: 23 million young girls drop out from schools each year in India when they hit menarche [1]. Schools in rural areas often lack bathrooms, disposal facilities and a running supply of water; forcing young menstruators to stay home for 5-6 days a month. During such time, parents often pressurize them to drop out of school completely since their attendance would anyway suffer every month then on. As a result, young minds, wanting to learn and complete their education, simply cannot do so. By depriving a keen mind the right to education, one is creating barriers to opportunity for the future of the child. This also gravely impacts the progress and development of the nation as a whole.

    Ujaas, an initiative under the Aditya Birla Education Trust, aims to educate menstruators about their basic human rights, so that they can stand up for themselves and demand justice. By conducting seminars and workshops, Ujaas aims at shattering the myths and misconceptions related to menses. The team is also actively involved in the distribution of affordable sanitary products in remote rural areas where menstruators may not have the access or funds for the same. Menstruation related teasing and exclusion undermines the principle of human dignity, and this is something that Ujaas firmly stands against. Ujaas aims to break this vicious cycle of discrimination and injustice through education.

    Also read,

    What is menstrual hygiene? How important is menstrual hygiene? 

    What are the ways to maintain menstrual hygiene? How are the NGOs helping in spreading awareness in the rural areas? 

    How is the lack of menstrual hygiene awareness and sanitation facilities affecting education?