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Isolation to Mobility: How Menstrual Hygiene Has Evolved in 50 yrs in Ladakh & Uttar Pradesh

Isolation practices during menstruation that are considered taboo now, were perhaps required five decades.

A short study was conducted in two states of India - the cold mountain desert of Ladakh and the agriculturally blessed Uttar Pradesh - to delve into menstrual health practices over the past 50 years.

Nine women were interviewed in the age groups 15-30 years and 45-60 years, of which five women were from Ladakh and the rest from Uttar Pradesh.

Imagine the present mountain desert of Ladakh fifty years ago having less population, extremely harsh winters, limited road connectivity, disconnected from the rest of the country for nearly eight months, and communities surviving only on sun-dried stored food.

On the other side, fifty years younger Uttar Pradesh had a very rigid patriarchal society that practiced early marriages, pardah system, and castism.

In these difficult times, women had to manage their menstruations!

This study explores interviewees' awareness of menstruation during adolescence, prevalent practices, myths, taboos, and the intergenerational journey of menstrual hygiene products. 

Period awareness among adolescents over the years:

"My mother never discussed periods with me, not even after my marriage. I have elder sisters, but they also did not tell me anything about it. I learned about the period from a friend a few months after mine started when I met her in the village during a school vacation." - Tashi Lazom, 74 years, who now lives in Leh, was the first girl in her village to attend school and drive a motorcycle as well as car.

Six out of the nine interviewed girls/women came to know about periods only after getting them. The remaining three knew about periods before getting them because they stayed in hostels for their studies and their mothers informed them in advance. 

In this study, we found a prevalent issue that many girls enter into their periods without prior knowledge, leading to confusion, panic, anxiety, and misconception about menstruation. It reveals significant gaps in menstrual education among young girls.

Changing period practices :

In Ladakh, Leh and Kargil districts share similar weather conditions but diverge in menstrual hygiene practices due to religious and cultural beliefs. In Leh, with a Buddhist majority, older generations shied away from discussing menstruation, while younger ones received education and communication from their mothers, particularly if they are away from home for studies. Although Buddhists have no restrictions on visiting monasteries, both generations avoid prayer rooms during menstruation due to their mental blocks around hygiene.

In Kargil, Muslim communities married off girls at a young age, with limited knowledge about menstruation until they experienced it. Cultural beliefs led to restrictions on movement and misconceptions, like the idea that walking over boys could cause boils in their eyes. Younger women from affluent families typically received menstruation education from their mothers, especially if they had to leave home for higher education.

In Uttar Pradesh, women aged 45-60 years adhere to some traditional values, avoiding worship, temple visits, and prasad consumption during menstruation. They recall being segregated during menstruation and assigned separate beds and utensils. Despite restrictions, they performed household chores in isolation.

Conversely, women aged 15-30 years deviate from tradition. Though they refrain from temple visits and prasad consumption during menstruation, they now enter kitchens, cook, and handle utensils. They no longer isolate themselves, continuing daily activities, citing improved market products. This shift reflects evolving cultural norms, increased mobility, and independence among the younger generation.

Persisting period myths/ taboos:

In Ladakh, Buddhist women do not have any myths or taboos but Kargil Muslim women have the following beliefs:

  • Do not eat or touch pickle

  • Do not eat curd 

  • Do not do prayers/namaz 

  • Can not keep Roza(fast) during Ramazan

  • Do not cross over quilts, boys, or men in the house.

In Uttar Pradesh:

  • Do not touch pickle

  • Do not worship or eat prasad. 

  • Do not wash your hair for 5 days. 

  • Do not drink or eat cold things

Journey of period management:

In olden times, Ladakhi women faced significant challenges with menstruation. The Ladakhi women’s traditional attire includes a pant, a blouse, and a thick coat on top to protect from cold. They wore two layers of thick pants to absorb blood during periods, but cleaning and drying them was difficult. During heavy bleeding, the blood would reach their ankles and bring shame.

With access to cotton from healthcare facilities later, they made local pads using cotton and a particular grass found locally. The local pads had good absorption but nothing to hold it in place and often created embarrassment as it would fall on the side and reach the ankles.  

In Kargil, along with two-layer thick pants women used clothes by tying around their waist.

In Uttar Pradesh, women sat in separate rooms and held cotton between their legs that would ensure the bleeding was soaked straight in cotton. Women faced blood stains on their clothes and on the floors as the cotton had limited soaking capacity and they would sit for long hours without moving. This became a major problem and isolation was strictly practiced.

Further to this, they began using old cotton clothes (such as dhotis, blouses, saris, etc.), which they could fold into multi-layer and make thick local pads that would reduce staining chances.

Later, panties were introduced in the market that helped in holding the local pads (Ladakh) and cloth pads (Uttar Pradesh) in place during bleeding. It provided better protection, though leakages still occurred. Panties allowed women to move easily. 

Eventually, sanitary napkins entered the market, offering improved absorption and leak protection. 

With the influx of foreign tourists, tampons were introduced, especially to women in adventure settings in Ladakh. And now menstrual cups are also available, making women's lives easier with menstrual hygiene product choices both in Ladakh and Uttar Pradesh.

During the interview, women mentioned that they are more comfortable using sanitary napkins as it is easily accessible and easy to use despite knowing that they are harmful to the environment due to inefficient disposable infrastructure. However, they expressed fear of using other tampons and menstrual cups as these need to be inserted inside the body.

"Nowadays, products like menstrual cups and tampons are very environmentally friendly and extremely helpful for women, especially as they travel and go to the office." - Manju Lata Gupta, 63 years, married to a doctor and resident of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Her husband would get special thick pads for her to manage her heavy period flow.

Disposal methods:

In Ladakh, women who used cotton and grass pads burned them, noting it took time but didn't harm the environment. Cotton cloth pads were washed and then discarded. Tashi Lazom shared her method of disposing of tampons: washing off the blood in the Indus River, tearing the material into small pieces, and hiding them under rocks. In Leh and Kargil, women typically washed off the blood from sanitary napkins and previously burned them, but now some bury them in far-off places some dispose of the pads by hiding them under rocks, and some wrap them in paper before disposing of them with other waste in municipal garbage dumps.

In Uttar Pradesh, all interviewees wrapped used sanitary napkins in newspapers before disposing of them in the dustbin, which are later collected by local sweepers.  However, they are unaware of the final disposal process. Although recognizing the environmental harm of sanitary napkins, none use eco-friendly alternatives like menstrual cups or tampons, revealing a notable gap in awareness and adoption of sustainable menstrual products.

Conclusion :

The practice of isolation fifty years ago seems practical as it allowed women to maintain hygiene. Underpants or panties revolutionized menstrual hygiene by keeping pads in place and enabling movement. 

While women in Ladakh and Uttar Pradesh are aware of the environmental benefits of menstrual cups, usage remains limited due to fear of insertion in the body. Despite improved awareness and availability of menstrual hygiene products, old beliefs still restrict women's activities due to religious concerns.

Authors: Preeti Chauhan & Prashansha Gupta

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