About a bloody conversation

‘Conversations on Menstruation’ was a survey created for youth to share their experiences on menstruation, regardless of gender. It was created out of a personal interest, in recognition of International Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28th May 2017. The target audience was urban college-going youth in India, though the survey received responses from other demographics as well.

The survey consisted of four sections: the first was primarily to collect biodata such as sex, age, and location. The second and third were for individuals who had and had not experienced menstruation respectively. The final one comprised gender-neutral questions on menstruation.

Out of 115 responses to the survey, 95 identified as female, 14 identified as male, while other respondents included bigender and genderfluid individuals, some with female physiology, as was seen when they chose to fill out the section created for individuals who had experienced menstruation. Key contributors to this survey included members of the IDEX Fellowship, students of Ashoka University, and students of St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru.

The average age of respondents was 19.6 years; the youngest respondent was 13, while the oldest was 57.

About 30% of female respondents did not find out about periods through their family first. They heard about it through a friend or through other sources, such as books or the internet. In addition, 33% of female respondents were not told about periods until after their cycles began, many of whom had their first period before the age of 15.

Most respondents reported that they had not been made to feel uncomfortable by shopkeepers and the like when buying pads, tampons, etc. In addition, most said that their families/peer groups did discuss periods openly. Given that most respondents are below the age of 25, these point towards shifting attitudes when it comes to urban youth and menstruation. However, one section raises a stark contrast to this inference.

Perception 1: Menstruation is not considered a “man’s” business to talk about, and it makes them uncomfortable (The lack of male respondents supports this).

Perception 2: Urban youth, including males, are more willing to talk about menstruation openly (The lack of male responses challenges this).

The males who did take the survey, however, seemed to be knowledgeable about menstruation, and often contributed to questions regarding taboos and attitudes towards periods and sanitary products, thus challenging the first perception and supporting the second.

Common taboos respondents are aware of include not going to holy places and not touching idols, along with not touching utensils commonly used by the family. Out of 40 responses, almost 30 mentioned taboos forbidding prayer or entry into a place of worship. Eleven respondents said that it is their immediate family who believe in these taboos, including grandparents.

Given that most respondents mentioned the word ‘temple’, they appear to be mostly aware of Hindu taboos related to menstruation. There was little mention of mosques, churches, or any other place of worship; only four respondents used the broader term ‘religious places’ or anything similar.

Over 100 respondents, regardless of gender, said that they did not believe in these taboos. There appears to be a consensus that they have no basis in logic, especially in the 21st century. Some respondents also mentioned how the taboos are related to gender discrimination, and certain interesting points came up as well:

  • I’ve heard of Prison guards taking Health kits from female inmates during their cycle as a form of cruelty.” 16, Male, Asheville, North Carolina (USA)
  • “I do not go near any god-related things since we are considered to be powerful and that we might take away the idols’ power.” (sic) 15, Female, Tamil Nadu (India) (Respondent who agreed with some menstrual taboos).

A little over half of the respondents were unaware that there is a luxury tax imposed on feminine hygiene products. However, even those who just found out strongly disagreed with the tax and that it should be removed. The consensus is that pads and tampons are not a luxury, but a necessity.

  • “…You might as well impose a luxury tax on water.” 19, Female, Kolkata (India).
  • Yes, because period products are a necessity. Bleeding every month is not a choice we make.” 20, Female, Andhra Pradesh (India).
  • “…Putting taxes on it would just be unfair to so many women.” 18, Male, Agra (India)

Another area of consensus is how to remove the stigma behind periods. Most agree that education and awareness, as well as open discussion, is the best way to go. Some even mentioned the role men can play in removing the stigma.

  • “…Many times I’ve been shamed by women in my family cause “men aren’t supposed to know”.” (sic) 26, non-binary, Mexico.
  • “…men/boys aren’t educated about menstruation, which leads to a lot of stigma, and PMS jokes.” 19, Female, Hyderabad (India).
  • TALK ABOUT IT.” 21, Female, New Delhi (India).
  • Things to educate the masses about menstruation”. 14, Female, Chicago (USA).

76% of female respondents who have experienced menstruation and were told about it by someone known belong to nuclear families.

There do not appear to be any geographical trends regarding taboos and awareness about menstruation. Often, two respondents belonging to the same city would provide vastly different answers about, for instance, which family members believed in taboos, and if their school conducted a session about menstruation or puberty.

Forty-three of the respondents are international respondents. Out of these, about 24 reported that their school had conducted a session regarding menstruation – about 55%. Among the 72 respondents from India, about 43 said the same – approximately 59%. Thus, there seems to be a trend across groups that little over half the respondents were told about menstruation at school as well.

A little over half of the respondents who studied in single-sex schools said that their school had conducted a session on menstruation/puberty (16 out of 30). The same was reported with those who studied in co-educational schools (53 out of 85). These numbers come from respondents who were certain that their institution conducted or did not conduct this session.

One definite point is the increasing number of schools where sessions did take place. If over half of the respondents reported a session taking place in their school, regardless of whether it was single-sex or co-educational, it points to an awareness campaign that is slowly taking hold of urban society. However, despite this, respondents still feel that there is a need for more sessions to take place among all age groups to combat the stigma behind menstruation. They do not appear to believe that the stigma should exist for a natural, biological process that much of the world’s population goes through, and steps such as informative sessions, removal of luxury taxes on sanitary products, and combating taboos will be the first of many to make a difference.