Since 2014, May 28 is marked as the World Menstrual Hygiene Day (MHD). The day was chosen because May is the fifth month and women menstruate an average of five days every month; and twenty-eight is the average length of menstrual cycle.

Women and girls face challenges and hardships because of social taboos and prejudices. The two main taboos are: one, discussing menstruation is anathema; and two, women’s bodies are impure or unclean when they menstruate. Thus, they are often prohibited from going into places of worship, from touching holy books, and from touching utensils or even pickles. Women are therefore unaware of menstruation hygiene.

When a girl menstruates for the first time, she is confused. She has never been told about, or prepared for, menstruation. In rural and tribal areas, a menstruating girl or woman is often segregated, put in a separate room. Often put in an animal shed along with the animals for the duration of menstruation, which is five-six days, and not allowed to use the toilets. Many girls stop going to school because of menstruation. And girls’ and women’s self-image may be negatively impacted by adverse attitudes towards menstruation.

Because of improper menstrual hygiene, girls and women are at risk of vaginal infections. These infections can cause itching, redness, and foul smelling, curdy-yellow discharge. If not treated, the infection can go into upper genital track and cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PTD), severe pain, and heavy bleeding during periods, infertility, tubo-ovarian mass/abscess that can be life-threatening, an increase in the risk of cervical cancer.

For proper hygiene, wear cotton panties, change them twice a day and whenever wet, wash genital area with vaginal-wash or plain water not soap, wash before going to bed and after urination and after sex, urinate after sex, trim rather than shave pubic hair, do not douche, and wipe vagina from top to downwards. Eat fruit-rich diet, curd, and garlic. Consult a doctor in case of an infection.

Women in low-income group also have the challenge of access to menstrual hygiene materials because of costs, availability, and social norms. Menstrual cups are a solution for these women. These do not have to be replaced, they can be washed in water, reused, and stored when not in use. Menstrual cups have more than five years life. Therefore, their long-term cost is low, even though their initial cost is higher than sanitary pads and tampons.

Government should create awareness about menstruation hygiene; and should distribute free menstruation cups among the needy and teach them how to use them. The savings in working-days lost to illness because of improper hygiene, and the cost of treatment of illness, will far outweigh the cost of the cups. The improvement in low-income women’s life and earning will be a bonus.

Mensuration is not the problem. Unawareness and poor mensural hygiene are.

On this Menstrual Hygiene Day, let us all – citizens, NGOs, govt – take the vow to help women achieve menstrual hygiene.

Dr. Sadhanakala

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