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To Become A Woman: Female Hygiene and Sexual Education in India

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

She is becoming a woman. This is a relatively generic phrase encapsulated within cultures around the world that carries the inconceivable weight of change and expectation. Often, this phrase carries shame too. To become a woman is a rite of passage. The process is riddled with presentations of sanitary materials and an explanation of the wonders of why a girl changes and how she will live with those changes. But to become a woman in societies like India’s comes with a set of challenges that are so vastly different from our own. Getting their first period leaves rural Indian women at a great disadvantage. It closely tethers their potential as humans to their identity as women and nothing more. There is a dire need of access to education and resources surrounding menstruation, sanitation, and health amongst Indian women in order to better other facets of their lives. Becoming a woman in rural India is not met with celebration but instead with shame, silence, and confusion.

Early adolescence is a time of exploration and expectations. It is during this time that children are taught how to act in society within the codes and guidelines provided to them, often differing based on gender. These socially constructed norms are the result of a gender binary, one that has informed society of what is expected for women. To be a woman means to act like a woman, and to live within those guidelines is intrinsically expected. An example of this phenomenon is illustrated when women often feel under pressure to conform to the stereotype of subordination or “people pleasing”, which leads to diminished vocalization of their ideas or needs. These social rules extend into distinctions in roles, behavior and power that is inherently associated with masculinity and femininity.

Thus, menstruation, and the way that it is perceived, has a direct relationship with the manner in which society interacts and acknowledges women. In studying different cultures around the world, it has been found that “young adolescents in different cultural settings commonly endorse norms that perpetuate gender inequalities, and that parents and peers are especially central in shaping such attitudes” The bulk of these gender inequalities negatively affect women.

In India, the lack of education surrounding sexual health is an epidemic. A poverty-stricken society that boasts as the world’s second most populated country, India has been the epicenter of fairly recently uncovered information regarding just how severe the lack of resources and equity offered to women really is.

The region is heavily dictated by differing cultural beliefs and religious attitudes; however, when it comes to menstruation, India’s women are united on their lack of information. Unicef found that “87% of the women and girls do not have any knowledge about the purpose of menstruation as a biological process” in India. That constitutes nearly half a billion women. In the global north, we take for granted how readily accessible information is– a quick Google search is available for anyone with a smartphone. Yet, a number of women greater than the entire population of the United States of America neither understands the changes their body goes through that caused them to become women nor are ever explained why by someone knowledgeable.

10% of the girls in India believe menstruation is a disease, 66% of Indian girls do not know anything about menstruation before their first period, and ultimately 23% of rural Indian girls stop going to school after having their first period.

These statistics are indicative of the rigid gender norms that govern Indian society. Women are expected to stay home, usually do not get jobs, and are targeted victims of violent crimes. Many Indian girls, on average, get married five years earlier than their American counterparts and “familial expectations” require women to be young, beautiful, quiet, and eager to please their in-laws to bring honor to their families. The notions of “gender-appropriate” behavior govern Indian women in what they can do financially and professionally, what they wear, who they answer to, and how they live their lives. Ultimately, the statistics regarding the number of women not having proper education about their sexual health and sanitation leads to further implications in their health.

Many rural Indian girls drop out of school after starting their periods due to a lack of protective options for menstrual sanitation and private, clean sanitary facilities. This presents a number of problems for women as a lack of education leads to obstacles in their personal development, economic status, and overall health. The 2018 World Bank Report found that only 26% of India’s workforce is made up of women as compared to the global average of 49%. Fewer women are completing their education and as a result are afforded fewer opportunities to become financially independent. Women who do not work due to educational barriers or because of familial expectations are less likely to have a say in the financial decisions in their houses. They are also less likely to be able to practice financial autonomy, thus becoming subject to the wills of their husbands or their fathers. In turn, fewer women are able to make decisions or take on power-wielding roles. They eventually succumb to the cycle of gender inequality.

The Pad Project, an organization dedicated to ending period poverty, found that “If girls receive seven full years of education, they will marry an average of four years later and have 2.2 fewer children. If they attend just one additional year of secondary school, their lifetime wages could increase by up to twenty-five percent, consequently raising their countries’ GDPs by billions of dollars.”

A lack of education around menstruation and the resources available is doubly compounded by period poverty. Many women in India do not have the financial capability to use sanitary menstruation products, which leads to 89% of women in India using strips of old fabric, dried leaves, ashes, sand, or even newspaper. This poor protection and hygiene leads to severe infections. That, coupled with the lack of safe and clean sanitation facilities means that many women are forced to stay at home.

In New Delhi, the urban capital of India, there are 132 public restrooms for women and 1,534 for men.

This disparity alone seems to bolster the expectation that women should be staying at home, that men should be out and doing work, and that ultimately, there is no reason for a woman to go out because of the lack of resources. This feedback loop perpetuates society’s view that women cannot go outside because of a lack of resources, ultimately preventing them from acquiring independence through careers or travel, which is then passed down to the next generation. The cycle continues, spreading from family to friends, and establishes itself as a societal truth, hindering women’s ability to change it.

There is an urgent need for the Indian government and organizations to address this significant lack of education regarding menstrual health and help increase access to resources to their women. But in a society that is so entrenched in the gender binary, it is hard for changes like that to be implemented in an effective manner, especially when one fourth of the country is living below the poverty line.

There are many ways to contribute to change with fundraising for organizations within India already doing work. One such organization is Project Stree, composed of members spanning across the globe. They use Indian grassroots organizations to help run workshops within rural village schools for girls to understand menstruation and offer period packets containing sanitary pads, reusable cloth and information to take home to share with their mothers. Interventions such as these have a positive impact on the society without impeding on the cultural expectations of the country and imposing Western ideals.

By offering targeted interventions in schools, especially in rural India, there is a huge likelihood that those women and girls can start to break the idea that menstruation is crippling to girls and their potential and teach themselves and future generations of what they can become.

There are millions of women that, when empowered and given the right resources and opportunities, have the ability to generate economic and social independence for themselves and ultimately help resolve other issues in India regarding poverty, education, and even gender based violence. Education gives us a voice, and it is our duty to help others find theirs.


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