How is period stigma related to human rights?

Continuation of human civilization- a grand concept. Menstrual process that makes it possible- not very much. I want to delight in my father’s embrace but I cannot. My impulse asks me to be playful around the kitchen but that will bring chaos. I wish to offer my prayers to the God whom I have tied my faith around but that would be a sin. This time, can I please not be secluded from the fun of festivities? But no, I am not allowed. I need to be ‘purified’ in order to be with my own husband. My instincts only demand a normal flow of life but one obtrusion- my regular menstrual flow. All these restrictions but only one genetic blight- ‘I’ am a female.

For what reasons did we engender this ‘period phobia’? How did a process as natural as menstruation become a reason to deny women the most natural tendencies of their life? Why is it still accepted as a reasonable norm? Are human rights defenders and social-welfare oriented nations doing enough to combat this discriminatory rite?

Problems Faced by Women

Taboos around menstruation are not native to just the South-Asian nationals:

  • Journal of Family Community Med Report, 2018: Among the surveyed girls, 40% do not attend school while on their periods.
  • Diva Cup study and infographic, 2018: Lack of menstrual information caused fear in 40% of American women during their first periods.
  • Think, 2018 & SCA Group Survey, 2017: 44% of French women and 58% of Americans feel ashamed during their period.
  • UNICEF & WHO, 2015: There is a heightened risk of infections in Moroccan and Bangladeshi women as they are forced to use tea towels, sheets, newspaper, pieces of mattresses or even mud.
  • UNICEF, 2013: Around 21% of girls of Niger and Burkina Faso miss school during menstruation.
  • 2.3 billion people in the world lack basic sanitation services.
  • Only 27% of the population of the Least Developed Countries have access to soap and water facilities at home. 
  • Lack of access to toilets and hygienic materials pose additional problems to women with special needs.
  • Unaffordable menstrual hygiene products cause reproductive and Urinary Tract Infection and other urogenital diseases.
  • Out of 1.9 billion of menstruating individuals, 500 million were unable to access menstrual health before the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Millions of females suffer from period poverty which is defined as the lack of the materials during, information about and hygiene required during menstruation. 

Menstrual Discrimination and Human Rights

The myth that women become impure during their menstrual cycles originates from the Hindu mythology which narrates that the monthly bleeding in women occurs as a repentance after women took lord Indra’s guilt of murdering a Brahman- Vritras upon themselves. The scientific explanation however, is different and proven. Menstruation is simply bleeding from the endometrial vessels as a missed chance of pregnancy and is followed by preparation of the next cycle of ovulation.

Menstrual health is complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing in relation to the menstrual cycle. Ensuring it entails easy and affordable access to the menstrual education, products and disposal facilities along with full social and work-related participation. State’s responsibility entails securing an adequate budget and formulating sectoral plans in the area. 

Around twenty six percent of females around the world belong to the reproductive age group. Women menstruate for an average of 7 years in their lifetime with about 2 to 7 days in one cycle. Menstrual Health is a major issue that requires our attention. But it has been incorporated neither in the agendas of the ‘International Conference on the Population and Development (ICPD’) nor in the ‘Millenium Declaration’ nor within goals number 3, 5 and 6 (health, gender equality, and water and sanitation) of the ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’.

The World Health Organization (WHO) demands that menstrual health be addressed as a human right and not just a matter of hygiene. There is a long list of human rights that encompass the issue of menstrual health, hygiene and non-discriminatory structures. Major UN treaties legally binding to more than majority of member states like the ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)’ have inscribed the human rights to health, education, water,  sanitation, equality and non-discrimination in obligatory documents. This implies that any kind of discrimination against girls and  women based on menstrual stigmas are illegal. 

Further, UN bodies are time and again passing relevant resolutions, the most recent being ‘A panel discussion on menstrual hygiene management, human rights and gender equality’ mandated by the Human Rights Council. Another UN adopted resolution, ‘Bangkok Rules’ have necessitated efforts to ensure women hygiene inside prisons. The UN Refugee Agency has been allocating funds to its offices since 2001 to distribute sanitary pads to women refugees so that it prevents violation of their right to dignity and health. 

Other attempts are UNESCO’s 2014 Puberty & Menstrual Hygiene Management guidelines, Save the Children’s 2016 Menstrual Hygiene Management Operational Guidelines and UNICEF’s Gender Action Plan for 2018-2021.

Foreign Data

  • A few South Asian countries like Japan under ‘Labour Standards Law 1947’, South Korea under ‘Labour Standards Act 1997’, Taiwan under ‘Gender Equality in Employment Act 1947’ and Indonesia have paid menstrual leaves for women having ‘especially difficult’ periods.
  • In Japan, the number of women using such leaves have declined from 26% as in the start to 0.9% as of 2017 and from 23.6% as of 2013 to 19.6% as of 2017. And this decrease in use of available facilities is to be credited to the shame of public exposure about menstrual matters which is regarded as a taboo in both the countries.
  • India, under ‘National Rural Health Mission 2010’, has schemed to distribute low-cost sanitary pads worth 1.5 crore to the girls of rural areas. 
  • Bihar became the only Indian state to allow period leaves in 1992 when the state government issued an order to provide two consecutive days off as period leave for women.
  • Arunachal Pradesh of India has introduced ‘The Menstruation Benefits Bill, 2017’ which shares the provision ordained by the Bihar government.
  • The French Institute for Public Opinion surveyed and found that 1.7 million French women are affected by period poverty. Thus the government has been investing one million euro to distribute free period products in schools.
  • New Zealand’s take on period poverty has pushed it to declare free period products to schools since June 2021.
  • South Africa showed its commitment to battle period problems by providing free products in schools from 2019 and by ending ‘tampon tax’ after an initiative by Global Citizen.
  • Scotland became the first country to provide free sanitary products to all women in 2020.

National Provisions

Mostly in rural Nepal, menstruation related discrimination has prevailed as ‘Chhaupadi’. The custom requires females to spend the first four to five days of their monthly menstrual cycles in a far-away secluded huts with no availability of proper nourishment and sufficient warmth. They are further made to face practices harmful to their health. Chhaupadi Practice Elimination Directive 2008 was the first of its kind to try to do away with this social evil after the Supreme Court’s order in May 2005 but does not seem as effectively implemented as it was planned to.

Muluki Criminal Code 2074 (2017), Section 168(3) prohibits inhuman treatment of women like banishing them to sheds while they are menstruating. Such an act will incur an imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of three thousand rupees or both. If the perpetrator is a public servant, they have to incur imprisonment of an additional three months.

The Right to Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act 2075 (2018) envisions attainment of reproductive health by women in its preamble but fails to cover the issue of menstrual hygiene and non-discrimination as a human right since menstruation is the very first stage of reproductive cycle. However, Section 3 does address the right to obtain education, information, counselling and services in relation to sexual and reproductive health.

A government study in 2010 discovered that around 19% of Nepali women practised chhaupadi. In the mid and far-west region, the statistics was 50% and in one area, 60% of them were unaware about criminalisation of the practice. A report prepared by UNICEF’s Adolescent Development and Participation Baseline Study in 2014 supported the fact with data that 44% girls of those reasons were asked to observe chhaupadi on a regular basis.  

Case Laws

  • Dilbahadur Bishwokarma v. Council of Ministers of Nepal, 2005: Chhaupadi pratha was recognised as a malpractice and banned by the Supreme Court for the first time and a directive had been issued to the government as a result of which ‘Chhaupadi Practice Elimination Directive 2008 came into existence.
  • Nirjhari Mukul Sinha v. Union of India, 2021: Gujarat High Court passed an order to end menstrual taboos and exclusionary practice against menstruating girls with the help of nine guidelines after it was reported that 68 undergraduate girls were taken to the restroom and made to pull down their undergarments to check if they had been menstruating.

Conclusion

It is evident how inattention towards menstrual health of women also undermines their sexual and reproductive rights. We have witnessed that urban does not mean progressive, educated minds do not mean malleable ones and developed countries do not mean they are broad minded about women’s human rights. Our education has failed us. It would be a graver failure if we plan to carry it forward unto the next generations. Stricter enforcement of the law and an intrusive character of the law enforcer are the needs of the hour.

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