by Ankita Jain

Talking openly about menstruation is the only way to transform the lives of girls and women, believes Radha Paudel, a menstrual rights activist. Seeking answers to the challenges she faced throughout her life, she also pioneered the global campaign for the Global South Coalition for Dignified Menstruation in 2019.

Radha was born as the fourth girl child to her parents who were desperately expecting a male child. “To be a girl wasn’t my choice and it took me ages to accept myself, the way I am. For about nine years, from the age of 7 to 15, I was thinking of ways to die because I couldn’t see any value of being born a girl. I even ran away from my house to escape the menstrual restrictions,” recalls Radha.

Her understanding about menstruation started the day she saw menstrual blood on her mother’s leg. She was concerned as no information or education was given to her about it. Later when her menstrual cycle started, Radha knew she won’t be spared from any restriction. “I was given an old piece of cotton cloth and a list of not-to-do things. I realised that I was seen differently by my mother and other family members. I also felt embarrassed to wash and dry my menstruation cloth in the open space outside my house,” she shares.

Running away from situations is not a solution that Radha wants young Nepali girls and women to follow. She advocates to end all taboos related to menstruation especially at the grass-root level. Radha claims, “Barriers to women’s achievement are falling in every sphere. Women lead countries, corporations, and households. Globally, more girls are entering school, earning family income, and participating in public life. But one big taboo stands in the way of women’s full equality: dignified menstruation.”

For most women in wealthy countries, menstruation is an inconvenience, and sanitary supplies like menstrual cups, tampons and pads are widely available. But for many million women and girls menstruating on any given day (on average for 3,500 days of their lives), this natural, life-giving process means illness, shame, the loss of educational and economic opportunity, and even violence.

While lack of napkins makes women menstruate in their clothes causing much embarrassment, at other times it leads to using alternatives like rags, dirty cloth, newspapers, sand, saw dust, ash and hay causing severe reproductive health problems. In many cases it has resulted in severe complications. A teenager from a remote village had her uterus removed due to an insect that entered through her vagina when she used hay to manage her period. Likewise, a woman died of tetanus because of a rusted hook in the blouse she used. “These incidents highlight why it is okay to tell young girls that menstruation is natural; bleeding is normal and that the stain on her clothes are okay,” says Radha.

Myths, fear and shame about periods take a deep toll on girls’ sense of dignity and self-worth. “In some villages, for example, girls and women are quarantined during their periods, prohibited from basic functions like cooking, washing and interacting with others. Menstruating girls are often taunted or bullied in school. For privacy, many women wait until nightfall to go outside and wash, putting themselves at risk of assault and rape,” she shares.

If dignified menstruation is so critical to women’s lives and livelihoods, why don’t we hear about it more often? Why isn’t it higher on international development or women’s rights agenda? “The answer involves the difficulty of tackling deep-rooted customs, women’s position in society and the inherent discomfort in talking about normal but messy bodily functions,” answers Radha, who is also the author of several books.

Dignified Menstruation is Everyone’s Business, a book about the dozens of inhumane practices followed while menstruating, is a book Radha wrote followed by another called Apbaitra Ragat that shouts for dignified menstruation.

Radha shares her findings wherein even educated Nepali women who use pads or cups do not have dignified menstruation. “It is not just lack of knowledge but the continuing myths and superstitions around menstruation in this 21st Century that come as a shocker,” exclaims Radha. The study reveals that girls during menstruation are still subject to restrictions like not visiting temples or entering the kitchen. “This unnecessary isolation and seclusion puts the spotlight on a girl during her period much to her dismay and embarrassment,” she says.

it is okay to tell young girls that menstruation is natural; bleeding is normal and that the stain on her clothes are okay

Why is there a lack of willingness to talk about menstruation openly? Radha points out that it is rooted in the society’s patriarchal system. “Menses is used as a means to body shame women, and this is deeply embedded in Nepali society to the point that we neither reflect nor talk about it. Wherever possible we strike a conversation on taboos and myths.”

Radha presents another facet. “Over a period of time, women have placed themselves and their physical wellbeing last on their list of priorities.”

Radha is also a social entrepreneur running a bio-degradable menstrual pad factory. She strongly advocates that dignified mensuration should be regulated from the time of birth to death. “This includes discrimination against child-bearers from conception. Also, freedom from social barriers and rules imposed on women to do or not to do social and religious activities at home and outside.”

“Critically, and most difficult, national and community leaders must speak out to change attitudes, end customs that hold back menstruating women and girls, and promote basic education about periods,” Radha adds.

“It’s time to make dignified menstruation a priority, with dedicated advocacy, funding and policies. Removing this last taboo could do as much or more for women’s rights and opportunity than any other action. Bringing the issue to public forums can help lessen the social stigma attached to menstruation and break the shame and silence,” she concludes.

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