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Shame and stigma: The taboo of menstruating in South Asia

Aditi Aryal

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Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash

The beliefs and practices that revolve around menstruation differ across societies. In some cultures, the menstruating women are victimised due to the regressive attitudes that exist around menstruation. In others, menstruation as a topic is not up for discussion; it is covered in layers of shame and stigma. Nevertheless, what remains common for the women who go under this natural biological phenomenon is that there exist different battles. Actually, these battles have to be fought primarily as a result of some concepts that render women dirty and their bodies polluted; as not sacred enough to befit daily activities. These beliefs reduce women into untouchables and sometimes compel them to live in isolation.

In the region of South Asia, the practices vary from culture to culture, and there is a stark contrast between urban and rural societies. In Hindu societies, families host figurines of deities in their houses that are worshipped regularly with full devotion. The concept of sacred and profane is very widely present in such families, and menstruating women are considered profane. Living in the same space as the god is sacrilegious.

In Nepal, 19% women are banished from their houses to ‘chhaupadi goth’, roughly translating to menstruation huts. Chhaupadi is a practice in the mountainous western Nepal that forces women to sleep and live in sheds for the duration of their period, due to the belief that menstruating women cause ill-luck to the family, crops, and cattle if the god is displeased.  The practice had been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2005, and recently in 2017 was taken up in the parliament again because it caused death in huge numbers. In 2017 alone, the cases of Chhaupadi related deaths came up and it was immediately re-criminalised with a penalty for the offenders.

Despite this, the practice has not stopped. In interviews that were taken immediately as the nation was outraged by the frequent deaths that took place in western Nepal, the women were questioned if they would still practice Chhaupadior put their daughters through the same after the re-criminalisation and additional penalty. They responded that it was not up to them but on the very societies that coerced them to undergo such malpractice. Furthermore, criminalising the practice would mean filing formal complaints against the family members which is very unlikely. If the women had that kind of powers, they would not be banished to a shed in the first place.

Merely making and implementing of draconian laws is not enough because people house their belief systems in superstitious interpretation of religion. Vulnerable in those sheds, women fear snake bite and animal attacks, mosquitoes, asphyxiation due to inhalation of smoke from the fire built to fight the cold, and sexual predators among others. However, these families see it more deeming that a woman live in a shed outside the house in unsafe conditions just to prevent the house from being polluted by her presence. This all boils down to the fact that a death of a menstruating woman would be justified because at least, the god was spared from pollution, the crops and cattle were intact. It perhaps gets justified as a result of something she did, maybe touch a bottle of pickle, who knows?

A large section of the urbanised sectors lament, often in forms that take of troll posts and memes, about the so-called ‘feminists’ in the ‘East’ who limit their talk to menstruation to come off as empowered in contrast to the ‘feminists’ in the ‘West’ who battle real and important feminist issues like ‘equal pay’ and ‘glass ceiling’. Dissecting this, it dawns upon a realisation that people in these societies regard the women who talk about menstruation in the open as aggressively progressive. Moreover, they would rather dismiss the topic as something irrelevant and consider talking about it lesser important than talking about other inequalities. However, it is only fitting to be vocal about menstruation as much as required.

We forget to remember that women in remote areas with poor access do not benefit from the choice between various menstrual products at their disposal. In India, less than 16% of the women use marketed feminine products. In various parts of the country, women use sand, or wood shavings or pieces of cloth. Now, the issues that arise are of infections amongst other things. To begin with, these products are unsafe and pose a threat of infections like urogenital infection and bacterial vaginosis. The cloths are repeatedly used without being sun-dried because of the shame of exposure of the used cloths to men and other women. What also prevents these women from using hygienic safe products is due to unavailability for several kilometres, unaffordability arising out of poverty, and embarrassment to ask for even a sanitary pad, especially from male shopkeepers. In fact, 23% of the girls drop out of school upon starting their menstruation. The Indian government, along with entrepreneurs, and educators have worked hard to ensure all women have access to sanitary products. However, the lack of funds, expensive to afford one-use products, unable to maintain quality of the low-budgeted products, and failure to meet the needs of all women in the country are some problems that are faced.

In Pakistan, 80% women do not have access to sanitary menstrual products. UNICEF reported that the biggest hindrance to sanitary conditions was prevented by the lack of washing facilities. In fact, for a country frequented by natural calamities and insurgencies in some areas, women should be educated and encouraged about using hygienic productssince there is always the likelihood of moving to temporary shelters in such circumstances. It was reported that a stunning number of girls are shocked upon menstruating their first time because they were not aware about it. In only a few years to follow, many drop out of school or stay absent from school when they are menstruating, thus hindering their education.

To sum it up, menstruation has been evolved as a shameful event in this part of the world. Menstruating women are shunned and indoctrinated as inferior and unchaste and they do not even fight against the practices but accept it as normal. Firstly, religion has a significant part to play as it is due to the god-fearing purity seeking individuals that seek to maintain the sanctity of their surroundings from where the concept of sacred and impure arise. But, how can any practice be religious if it causes the already disadvantaged more detriment? Secondly, unawareness and equating menstruation with shame and secrecy has worsened the situations to where women are not comfortable with their own bodies so much so that they from birth to death are unaware of their own anatomies. Where mothers are themselves not at peace with their body and bodily functions, passing it on to their daughters is difficult and discussing about it with their sons unimaginable. Lastly, this exclusion of men and terming menstruation as a ‘woman thing’ has led to men genuinely having no idea what the deal is about and why is it important for women to be safe, clean, healthy, and rested when they menstruate. Thus, a change is necessary by educating women, by subsiding sanitary menstrual products, criminalising discrimination against menstruating women, and by including men in this drive.

Aryal is a student of Social Science and writes about social and developmental issues pertaining to exclusion, inequalities, and gender disparities in the South Asian context.

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New Social Compact

As inequality grows, the UN fights for a fairer world

MD Staff

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The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the UN’s blueprint for a better and more sustainable future for all – calls for a reduction in inequality between and within countries. Nevertheless, global inequality is increasing. So what can be done?

Inequality is an “entrenched imbalance”

The question of inequality was raised several times by the UN in January: speaking at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, UN chief António Guterres pointed out that, while technological progress and globalization have led to “fantastic improvements” in many areas, they have also increased inequality and marginalized millions.

And, in her annual letter, Lise Kingo, CEO of the UN Global Compact, which supports private sector efforts to do business responsibly, noted that, in 2018, we saw “a small group of individuals are getting exponentially richer as billions are left behind in poverty.”

Inequality is not only rising, it is also an “entrenched imbalance,” according to Richard Kozul-Wright, a globalization expert and Director with the Trade and Development agency UNCTAD.

In an interview with UN News, which you can listen to here, Mr. Kozul-Wright said that notionally high employment rates in many economies mask the fact that wages and working conditions are not improving, and that whilst wages have been stagnant for a decade, dividends on shareholdings have been recovering, benefiting financial asset holders. His remarks came in the wake of the January launch of the 2019 World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report which showed uneven growth (both between and within countries) that is often failing to reach where it is most needed.

Will AI take away our jobs, or transform them?

The beginning of 2019 saw a focus on the role of technology on the world of work, and the impact it is having on inequality. The International Labour Organization (ILO) launched a landmark report in January: the Global Commission on the Future of Work. This study concluded that technological innovations provide “countless opportunities” for workers, but warned that, if these technologies are not deployed as part of a human-centred agenda based on investing in people, work institutions and decent, sustainable employment, we run the risk of “sleepwalking into a world that widens existing inequalities and uncertainties.”

One of the key technological innovations mentioned in the report, one that garners significant media attention, is artificial intelligence (AI). A report from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), published at the tail-end of January, noted a “quantum leap” in AI-related patents, suggesting that AI could soon “revolutionize all areas of daily life beyond the tech world.”

AI inspires as much fear as excitement, evoking  a dystopian world in which more and more work is carried out by machines, with society split between a tiny super-rich elite and the rest, an unemployable mass of people with no prospect of finding work.

Kriti Sharma doesn’t see things that way. She has been recognized by the UN as a Young Leader For Sustainable Development Goals, in recognition of her work to ensure that AI helps to create a better, fairer world, through her AI For Good organization, and her role in the Sage Future Makers Lab, which was set up to equip young people around the world with hands-on learning for entering a career in Artificial Intelligence.

Speaking to UN News, Ms. Sharma acknowledged that people who live in countries which are on the wrong side of the digital divide (with less access to data) will be at a disadvantage, and pointed to studies that show a gender divide is looming, with women twice as likely to lose their jobs to automation, because of the kind of work they are involved in: “We need to make sure that we give people enough opportunities to reskill themselves, otherwise we end up creating more inequality that we had before.”

However, she believes that one of the biggest risks is failing to embrace this technology, and not equipping people with the skills to use it to solve global problems. Ms. Sharma laid out three ways to help ensure that AI brings about a fairer world.

First of all, it is important that a diverse group of people from many backgrounds are creating this technology, people who “understand society, policy-makers.” The second point is to ensure that AI is being used to solve the “right problems,” such as accelerating the Sustainable Development Goals, by diverting energy, research and funding into this area. And, lastly, international standards must be agreed upon, to make sure that the technology we create is used in a way that is safe and ethical for the world.

No progress without international cooperation

So, what is the way out of the “entrenched imbalance” of inequality? For the UN, a greater emphasis on international cooperation is an important part of the solution. The 2019 World Economic Situation and Prospects report concludes that, at a global level, a “cooperative and long-term strategy for global policy” is the way towards progress in reducing income inequality, and warns that a “withdrawal from multilateralism will pose further setbacks for those already being left behind.”

As the Secretary-General told the audience in Davos, a coordinated and global response is the only way to fight inequality, because “we need to work together. There is no way we can do isolated responses to the problems we face, they are all interlinked.”

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Sexual Diversity in Hindi Cinema: A Beginning

Aditi Aryal

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Bollywood, or as the more politically correct call it the “Hindi Film Industry”, released last week what is advocated as the first commercial film to portray love between two women characters in ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ (When I Saw a Girl I Felt That Way). A sterner breakthrough was in1996 when ‘Fire’, a path-breaking mainstream film boldly represented same-sex love between two women worn-out from their conjugal lives to find companionship in one another. Gatekeepers of Indian tradition and culture vandalized theatres and ran smear-campaigns against the film; it was way ahead of its time. The later Hindi films did little justice to aptly represent diversity by only typecasting characters to fit into the stereotypes of queer men as effeminate and reducing cross-dressers to a mere punch line.

The misrepresentations and badly written jokes were unobjectionable and continued to amuse the audience and homosexuality was typecast into a box of fallacies.  Homophobia persisted, if not strengthened, as influential politicians and famous yoga gurus condemned homosexuality as immoral and abnormal but treatable disease. Some went so far as to call it a Western import, an idea that was flowed in to corrupt the Indian purity. The retrograde legal standing on homosexuality as an unnatural activity remained a hurdle to depict properly the gravity of the issue in mainstream cinema. Yet, the fact remains that these films only reflected homophobia that truly exist in the society.

Following the decriminalization of homosexuality in India in September 2018, a six months later about woman struggling to come out to her family is exceptional. The film plays safe within the realm of a conventional narrative without going overboard. Not pushing the envelope to advocate for a radical change in thoughts and action, the film simply speaks for acceptance. But does it really get its message across?

Perhaps not. The movie’s representation of homosexuality is washed out akin to the superficial dealing of homosexuality in India. It does not even do as much as show some physical intimacy between the main leads. It revolves around the obsolete narrative of a protective family that is oppressive to protect the woman. It shows a self-sacrificing situation where she is ready to marry a man only because she needs to put her family first, even before herself.

By doing this, the film is toying into a genre of a submissive female, a storyline that has always been exploited by Indian films. The act of women as submissive to the demands of the family by suppressing their desires to save the honor which lies in their character is outdated. For a film woke enough to speak about homosexuality openly, these outdated narratives were unnecessary as they tend to reinforce the norms that need to be eradicated from Indian cinema.

It goes without saying that Indian content is consumed across a huge geographical region, covering the whole of South Asia and also across Indian communities all over the world. A form of cultural hegemony has been established as local content is dominated by Indian content, thwarting native culture in the process. For the more diverse and liberal audience that consume these films it is concerning whether such things will also be internalized in more open societies.

However, delving into a topic that is untouched but essential in today’s time, it is one baby step that will gauge the standing of the society on homosexuality. It is not to say that the issue has gained much acceptance largely. Sexual minorities in India continue to be marginalized and their struggles to fit as ordinary or to be treated equally into the society is crushing. Progressive films are one way to get on board to bring the required change.

Nevertheless, it is only with slight trepidation that filmmakers can proceed to depict ‘bold’ issues on screen. The presence of a paternalistically stringent censor board has always been a hurdle to pass. Fringe groups backed by strong political connections are almost at the ready to vandalize a film set and put a bounty on the director and actors for distorting Indian culture.

23 years after the fate of ‘Fire’, little has changed about acceptance – both in cinema and society. More progressive films in the mainstream might be a long way ahead in India, especially since the formula of success is doused in skewed gender representations. However, one can only hope for stronger scripts that stir the audience, incite dialogue, and then bring the change we have always wanted to see.

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Human trafficking cases hit a 13-year record high

MD Staff

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The latest Global Report On Trafficking In Persons, released on Tuesday by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at UN headquarters in New York, shows a record-high number of cases detected during 2016, but also the largest recorded conviction rate of traffickers.

“The report was undertaken for a simple reason: if we want to succeed in confronting human trafficking in all its manifestations, we must better understand its scope and structure,” said Yury Fedotov, UNODC’s Executive Director as he presented the report in New York. “We need to appreciate where human trafficking is happening, who are its victims and who is perpetrating this crime.”

According to the latest figures compiled by UNODC, the record conviction and detection rates could either be a sign that countries have strengthened their capacity to identify victims – such as through specific legislation, better coordination among law enforcement entities, and improved victim protection services – or, that the number of actual instances of trafficking has increased.

While in 2003 fewer than 20,000 cases had been recorded, the number of cases recorded in 2016 had jumped to over 25,000.

UNODC Main forms of exploitation and profiles of detected victims, by sub-regions, 2016 (or most recent)

Despite improvements in data collection, impunity prevails

Over the last decade, the capacity of national authorities to track and assess patterns and flows of human trafficking has improved in many parts of the world. UNODC’s report notes that this is also due to a specific focus of the international community in developing standards for data collection. In 2009, only 26 countries had an institution which systematically collected and disseminated data on trafficking cases, while by 2018, the number had risen to 65.

However, many countries in Africa and Asia continue to have low conviction rates, and at the same time detect fewer victims which, UNODC stresses, “does not necessarily mean that traffickers are not active”.

In fact, the report shows that victims trafficked from areas of the world with low detection/conviction rates are found in large numbers in other areas of the world, suggesting that a high degree of impunity prevails in these low-reporting regions.

“This impunity could serve as an incentive to carry out more trafficking,” the report warns.

Women and girls remain a major target

“Traffickers the world over continue to target women and girls,” wrote Executive Director Fedotov, in the report’s preface. ‘The vast majority of detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and 35 per cent of those trafficked for forced labour are female.”

The report notes “considerable regional differences in the sex and age profiles of detected trafficking victims.” In West Africa, most of the detected victims are children, both boys and girls, while in South Asia, victims are equally reported to be men, women and children. In Central Asia, a larger share of adult men is detected compared to other regions, while in Central America and the Caribbean, more girls are recorded.

Sexual exploitation, the top form of trafficking

Most of the victims detected globally are trafficked for sexual exploitation, especially in the Americas, Europe, and East Asia and the Pacific. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, trafficking for forced labour is the most commonly detected form. In Central Asia and South Asia, trafficking for forced labour and sexual exploitation are equally prevalent,

Other forms of human trafficking include: girls forced into marriage, more commonly detected in South-East Asia; children for illegal adoption, more common in Central and South American countries; forced criminality, mainly reported in Western and Southern Europe; and organ removal, primarily detected in North Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe.

“Victims can be in restaurants, fisheries, brothels, farms, homes, and even organ trafficking and illegal adoption,” said Rani Hong, who survived child trafficking herself as she was taken from her family in India at age 7, submitted to intimidation, physical abuse and slavery, until she was sold for illegal adoption in Canada and later the United States.

“I was told by my witnesses that when I came into the United States, I was not able to walk because I had been locked in a small cage. This is what this industry is doing, and this is what happened to me.”

Many other forms, such as trafficking for exploitation in begging, or for the production of pornographic material, are reported in different parts of the world.

Armed conflict and displacement, a key driver of human trafficking

The report shows that armed conflicts can increase vulnerability to trafficking in different ways as areas with weak rule of law and lack of resources to respond to crime, provide traffickers with a fertile terrain to carry out their operations, preying on those who are desparately in need.

Armed groups and other criminals may take the opportunity to traffic victims – including children – for sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, armed combat and various forms of forced labour. This is the case for example in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, South-East Asia and elsewhere.

In some refugee camps in the Middle East, also, it has been documented that girls and young women have been ‘married off’ without their consent and subjected to sexual exploitation in neighbouring countries.

In addition, recruitment of children for use as armed combatants is widely documented. UNODC’s report notes that within conflict zones, armed groups can use trafficking as a strategy to assert territorial dominance, spread fear among civilians in the territories where they operate to keep the local population under control. They may also use women and girls as ‘sex slaves’ or force them into marriages to appeal to new potential male recruits.

The study shows that in all the conflicts examined for the report, forcibly displaced populations (refugees and internally displaced families) have been specifically targeted: from settlements of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, to Afghans and Rohingya fleeing conflict and persecution.

Notably, the risk faced by migrants and refugees travelling through conflict areas, such as Libya or parts of sub-Saharan Africa, is also well documented: in Libya, for example, militias control some detention centres for migrants and refugees and are coercing detained migrants and asylum seekers for different exploitative purposes.

“While we are far from ending impunity, we have made headway in the 15 years since the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons entered into force,” said UNODC’s chief Mr. Fedotov, as he noted that “nearly every country now has legislation in place criminalizing human trafficking”.

“The international community needs to accelerate progress to build capacities and cooperation, to stop human trafficking in conflict situations and in all our societies where this terrible crime continues to operate in the shadows,” he stated in the report’s preface.

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