When the Akshay Kumar film Pad Man releases on Feb 9, all eyes will be on Twinkle Khanna in a movie based on ‘The Sanitary Man from a Sacred Land’ from her book, The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad. And, of course, on protagonist, Arunachalam, aka, the Pad Man . But working behind the scenes are scores of Pad Women, who have, without fanfare, worked relentlessly to change the patriarchal mindsets that still see menstruating women as unclean. Joyeeta Chakravorty chronicles the story of those unsung heroes
They are picture perfect, nestling under the great Himalayan peaks. But the villages in the foothills of the mountains are a world unto themselves, with their people immersed in traditions of old that defeat reason. Sunny in summer and freezing in winter, their laws apply to all seasons, particularly where their women are concerned.
And so when a few social reformers visited one village, they were taken aback by the greeting they received."Don't touch me . I am menstruating." cried Basanti Devi, the pradhan or head woman of Khati village in the Pindar valley, Bageshwar district, Uttarkhand, as they approa ched her. The 34-year- old woman may have made strides in village life, but is as much a victim of its traditions. Like other women she willingly enters a cattleshed for the three days that she is menstruating, cutting off all contact with the rest of the villagers. "Cow dung is pure. So, we are made to stay in the cattle shed for three days. It is cold and dark and we often come down with a cold and fever in winter when we stay here and in the rain we have to put up with insects and even snakes," she recounted.
Sadly, in the villages of the Pindar valley, ‘Kumaon’, the word for menstruation is "untouchable". Menstrual blood is considered impure and menstruating women so polluting that they are not allowed to enter their homes or use their toilets. Instead they are forced to go to a stream to clean themselves. Most of the villagers in Khati, Pindar valley, realise this system is regressive and unfair, even the men, but there's little sign of them giving it up.
Kumari Tara has been working in a primary school in Khati as an anganwadi sahayika since 2008, looking after its 23 children. But like the other women of Khati village, she too stays in the cattleshed when she is menstruating. "If you come into contact with a menstruating woman, you will fall ill," she tells you with conviction.
Although Kumari Tara has a toilet at home, when she is menstruating, she cannot use it and goes down to the stream, 20 minutes away, to defecate, change her sanitary napkin,wash herself and her clothes. The freezing winter being no exception. "In the past menstruating women had to stay in the chaupadi for 11 days. Now they stay in the cattleshed for only three days followed by another two days of segregation at home. This change has come about because women cannot be spared for so long," she explains innocently.
But if the women of Pindar valley are badly off, some in IT City, Bengaluru are not faring any better. Thirty-six-year-old Aruna, wakes up at 5 am, prepares tiffin for her children and then sets off to a social enterprise organisation, StoneSoup where she works with the composting team and a feminine hygiene team that promotes menstrual cup. But even today, Aruna is not allowed to visit temples or take prasadam during festivals and enter her own puja room in her house when she is menstruating. "It is ingrained in our psyche and so I have learnt to not question it and live with it," she says matter- of- factly.
"I used to work as an ironing lady in one of the apartments in Bellandur and on the days when I had periods it was difficult to change sanitary pads even if I could use a toilet there . So I would carry it to my house every day and burn it somewhere nearby, " she recalls, throwing light on the dismal situation that exists in a country that has come close to 70 years of calling itself independent.
It is a sad fact that discrimination against menstruating women continues in India, which is home to 374.9 million girls and women between the ages of 10 and 49, the majority of whom undergo the cycle every month.
Although menstruation is a normal, biological process and the sign of a healthy woman, it is surrounded by a veil of silence and considered taboo even today. For many girls, their first period is a traumatic start to adolescence - one associated with many restrictions and feelings of fear, shame and embarrassment.
But now a few social reformers are working to change this outlook as is Bollywood with the soon to be released film, Padman, where the protagonist attempts to revolutionise the manufacturing of sanitary napkins in an East Indian village.
"Menstruation taboos are suffered by women not just in remote villages butalso in urban areas. Owing to the stigma associated with it, we need to buy it in black packets and wrap it in a newspaper to throw it away when no one is watching. But, why? Isn't it a natural process?" asks Ms Kamini Prakash who is with the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) that works with government and civil society organisations to break the silence around menstruation and replace the shame and indignity with confidence and pride.
"Even touching these women and assuring them that they are not impure is an act of rebellion. The resistance to change comes largely from the village elders, the custodians of tradition. Most of the older women use cloth, while the younger girls use sanitary pads , which they buy from the nearest town. There is no disposal system and the used cloth or pads are thrown into the stream," she notes regretfully.
Another activist, Kala Charlu, founder, MITU (Multiple Initiatives Towards Upliftment) says in one orphanage a warden made a young girl, who was menstruating for the first time, strip naked, throw her clothes out and sit on a mat.
"I tried telling her that the practice was obnoxious, but she kicked me out of her orphanage. That day still haunts me," she says with feeling.
Her organisation reaches out to 600 girls every month and provides them with a hygiene kit for those five days free of cost. "These young girls cannot wash the cloth out in the open and so we are giving them sanitary napkins along with cloth pads and disposable bags," she explains.
Kala says that although things are improving in south India, the first time a girl reaches puberty, she is still not allowed to go to school for 10 to 15 days in many parts. " In my journey of advocacy, I found that different communities follow different customs and superstitions, like forcing the menstruating girls to have dal, jaggery and chapathi although this is time they need nutrition the most. And it has been extremely difficult to ask them to change," she regrets. Kala recently received the 'Braveheart' Award from the Association of Inner Wheel Clubs of India.
Others like Mr Dilip Kumar Pattubala are also working to fight the taboos around menstruation. He is co-founder of Sukhibhava, a social enterprise working with marginalised women and adolescent girls, to empower them through awareness and improved access to healthy menstrual practices by leveraging technology.
The organisation, which distributes eco-friendly menstrual hygiene products, has so far worked with over 17,400 women and adolescent girls in the country, successfully creating awareness about menstrual hygiene and ensuring doorstep accessibility of its products at a low cost. Sukhibhava has now launched The Period Fellowship in an attempt to make menstruation a non-issue. Under the fellowhip, 40 "fellows" will be recruited, trained and placed in eight different regions across India to initiate a local movement for educating girls and their mothers about menstrual and adolescent health.