Imagine waking up in a bed soaked in blood. Imagine rushing to the school lavatory with a stained skirt. Imagine a tattered washcloth between your legs.
Picturing this might fill you with disgust, but it affects hundreds and thousands of girls in India. As an adolescent, this was part of my life. I remember my grandmother handing me the filthiest piece of cloth that I had ever seen. I remember objecting to it because by then I had read a bit about menstrual hygiene in my school books. But her logic was quite simple: "Periods are dirty and so all you need is a dirty piece of cloth. After all, it is just going to end up in trash. So, why does it need to be clean?"
There are various studies regarding menstrual hygiene in India. One of them claims that over 70% of Indian women still believe periods to be "dirty." My grandmother was no exception. She had used dirty cloths all her life and it is not surprising that this had likely led to cervical cancer.
Diseases that could be avoided
In India, an estimated 70% of all reproductive diseases in women are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. And yet, people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in educated households, words that describe a woman's health remain taboo. Hence, even while my grandmother was going through cancer treatments, I never heard words like vagina or uterus.
There is another study that suggests that only 18% of Indian women have access to sanitary hygiene. All the others have to endure the same fate as my grandmother. Many of them must deal with different kinds of diseases. Little do they realize that the dirty piece of cloth is adding to their troubles.
According to a further survey, more than two-thirds of girls in India have no knowledge about menstrual health until after their first period. I must admit, I was one of them. It's strange how until the age of 11 no one ever mentioned it to me. Such is the extent of social stigma attached to menstruation that girls shy away from sharing their first experiences even with their best friends.
It is therefore no wonder that the most famous brand of sanitary napkins in the Indian market is called "Whispers." The name is indicative of why girls are wary of talking about periods openly.
Awareness is good, availability is better
In the last decade things have improved a little. Women's rights organizations have stood up against luxury taxes being levied upon menstrual products, commercial and documentary films have tried to raise awareness among the masses. There is no doubt that awareness is important, but the question of availability or affordability has often been ignored.
A pack of sanitary pads costs anywhere between 100 and 250 rupees (€1 to €3). Most low-income families cannot afford this. There are a few non-profit organizations that are making sanitary pads available for prices as low as 10 rupees. But they only cover specific areas in the country.
It is the duty of the government to ensure that women and girls get the right to menstrual hygiene. The government has been providing free condoms in hospitals for decades to control population growth. It could use the same infrastructure to provide women and girls with sanitary products as well.
Scotland's decision to make all period products free fills me with hope that countries like India will follow suit. As Scottish politician Monica Lennon has emphasized: "These are not luxury items. They are indeed essential, and no one should have to go without period products."