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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

Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

MD Staff

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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New Social Compact

Davos: The Other Side of the Mirror

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It has been a couple of months since I was hanging out in Davos learning about this year’s World Economic Forum.  Perhaps I have a unique view, because I am the founder of Peppr and Ohlala, described as “the one dating app where everyone’s intentions are very clear.”  and the person said to be responsible for the #escortgate controversy, in which paid escorts showed up at one of the world’s most exclusive investor conferences in Berlin in 2016. I am also the author of the statement that “We all have sexwork to do,” I follow up on all conversations related to escorting and sexwork, which I deliberately call “paid dating.”

I have been following up on the conversations ever since: about world leaders said to be not acting as role models (or acting as bad role models), about the hypocrisy over sustainability, philanthropic models or the proposals to adjust taxes for the wealthier among us to secure a basic standard of living for all, a conversation the ones directly affected seemed to be avoiding.

Davos, as we know, brings together so many of the world’s most powerful leaders –parleys occur, deals are made and opportunities appear that likely don’t ever arise elsewhere. And among these deal makers are people whose drive takes other avenues. 

As one woman was quoted as saying: “It’s the kind of place where if a woman turns away to exit a conversation and looks back just quickly enough, she’ll find her posterior aesthetic being carefully dissected by the man who just asked her for her business card — even if he is the CEO of a major bank. When we weren’t being asked how we got here, we were constantly being stared up and down by CEOs, hedge fund managers, finance ministers and embassy heads.”

However, I am still a bit confused about the opinionated statements that were going on this year after Davos. It’s the same debates and thoughts we had around #escortgate.I have been wondering how to productively progress the conversation around this morally, emotionally loaded topic, because clearly we are running around in circles.

What I have seen is a whole lot of personal, subjective judgments of people sometimes labeled as “escorts” and how they are not supposed to be around in places like Davos. I had hoped for a more deliberate thought-through conversation, a dialogue, but mostly what I read stigmatizes and judges people on their very personal choices and agreements: how they want (or have to — as most of us do) to make money, to afford a living.

“I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute”

You might wonder which conversations or statements I was so confused about. First, about the existence of escorts at the Forum, by a young woman named Baillie Aaron:

“And then I heard the whispers of what happens at night, at the parties, in the hotel lobbies and at the famous Piano Bar where it was an unspoken understanding that some men ‘took off their wedding rings.’ Almost all my male colleagues commented on the presence of female escorts at these venues, many of which were guest-list only, or required a hotel badge to access. A quick online search displayed a number of articles confirming that the existence of and easy access to escorts at Davos is nothing new, and what for some delegates, could be a strong motivator to attend.” Statement found here.

Demand creates supply. It’s as simple as that and from an economic standpoint, I do understand wo/men going there to seek business, in any sense. Also, on that particular one.

However, I wonder: What is so bad about the “existence of and easy access of escorts” in the first place? Why shouldn’t there be men or women who get paid to date at the World Economic Forum? If it’s true, maybe some men took off rings because they are in an open marriage? Why would you care about someone else’s choice? (Unless you are the wife of that person and you have a personal private agreement to stay physically faithful and not take the ring off.)

In Switzerland, at least, if there really were some men or women paid to have sex, it would be legal and regulated — not even a breach of law. For me, these workers should be as much part of the conversation as anyone else in Davos.

Actually, given the current political environment in the US around the topic of sexwork, they should definitely be part of the conversations, because this industry screams:“Please reinvent me and improve circumstances for those who are not protected. Make it safer for everyone involved.”

Some politicians already seem to be having a change of heart. Decriminalization is their way forward. Going along with all the standing proposals of Amnesty International.

What else has been subject of the realm on feeling “unsafe” or “discriminated” at Davos.

I look and check bodies all the time myself, with men and women. I can appreciate a beautiful person without having the urge to hook up. We do checkout people all the time — on Instagram and Facebook. But we are not allowed to look in real life? Everyone does it. Recently, I have found myself with other people in the office kitchen wondering how cute the new intern is. #Wetoo do it.

Third quote about warnings regarding sexual harassment

“At the Davos opening Women’s Reception, with some male allies in attendance, I asked a question: Why is it that in 2019, young female delegates are forewarned about sexual harassment — as if it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves — but the delegates themselves aren’t given training on how (or why) not to harass? There was no answer, other than a murmuring recognition that it was a known issue: many of the women who attended in past years had personal experience of sexual harassment.”

What is actually sexual harassment?Can we come up with a definition?Does sexual harassment go both ways?Where does it start?Where to draw the line?

There is always two sides of the story and I feel like, in the realm of the “gender narrative debate” (certain traits assigned to genders because of a gender), we need to let both parties speak in order to find a common ground. What one attempt-to-hit-on-someone finds okay, another may feel totally offended.

Of course we could be confused anyway. Every third relationship evolves in a work-related context. So that means, including these events, it could be a dating market as well, right? Personally, 90 percent of my time, I am surrounded by people with whom I somehow work together. The chances that I meet someone that I want to partner up with is high. So naturally, events like this also create a space where I might get to know someone for a night, maybe more.

I understand, there are certain limits: If someone runs up to someone during the day time event in a straightforward business context and does a pussy or penis grab (Presidential style?), I understand negative sentiment. But if people (yes, men AND women) hit on each other in a Piano Bar to romantic music at 2 in the morning, after a couple of glasses of wine or even four gin and tonics, where people go to hang loose and left the laptop in their hotel room, you cannot possibly be surprised that this is happening.

Again, it goes both ways. We all forget our manners sometimes, when we are drunk (or high, or whatever). On a personal note: The most aggressive hit on me ever was by a drunken woman, not a man.

“I think about what I wear more because there are a lot of prostitutes in Davos, especially at the Piano Bar,” one woman said, referencing the popular late-night hot spot. “I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.”

When we gender mainstream almost everything, even adjust anthems of countries, toilet signs, why don’t we just get rid of that particular word too? Or best: all of them: escort, prostitute, whore. Those devaluating terms are connected directly to women. We will not evolve in any of the conversations if we use preconceived terms. We need to let go of these terms.When we talk empowerment, we need to empower all women (or people in general). That certainly includes also those who get paid to date.

I would like to start proposing a couple of solutions and quick fixes.Here are some ideas that I would like to propose as to how to progress in this entire discussion:

Power of perception: Could you, instead looking down toward this type of entrepreneur, take it as a compliment?Flip the coin. Be bold and brave. So what? Maybe that person misread the signs? If he/she thinks you want to be paid to date: just say. ‘No, I don’t‘.  This way you are still respecting other people, especially women who do this — as a personal choice entering into an agreement — and you maintain your own integrity. Problem solved. That I find acting out of a position of power, instead of victimizing yourself.

Let’s stop gender blaming!People can have female and male traits. This makes the whole gender debate almost irrelevant. This is “how men are” or this is “how women are” is simply stereotyping our way to further separation. Even the Davos Vanity Fair – as my legendary professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic calls the WEF – advocates the gender neutrality.

This whole finger pointing and mansplaining doesn’t solve anything but create negative sentiment because we simply sometimes don’t know anymore as to how to behave in certain contexts. I feel like the whole dynamic is ruled by fear, as to what we are not supposed to do, instead of relearning how we can handle each other in certain contexts. Reframe it in a positive way. Look at it as a chance or opportunity.

And it goes both ways, this #metoo. We have to find a common ground towards a #wetoo. From he said, he did, she said, she did. We need to evolve to a “#wetoo are going to solve this together.”

3. Education is key.We need proper training of all sorts on how to handle each other. Why not invest in our (work) relationships?

Maybe we need to elaborate a guideline. We could design a new sort of “Knigge” or a Code of Conduct on how to behave in a work-related context. This could help navigate through some uncertainties, especially if cultures vary across borders and continents.

Or maybe even a defense class to train people for difficult situations. For example: I had a compulsory defense class in middle school. We were trained by really big guys to defend ourselves. The impact in my life? I always feel/felt safe, because though I might be physically inferior, I know some really important tricks. It gave me a lifelong confidence.Maybe that’s what we all have to learn at the end of the day: articulate our intentions properly and (be able to) show the limits.

Imagine a world, free from personal judgement, where “it” would be decriminalized. People active in this field could seek help if they needed it and would pay taxes. The proceeds of the taxes could be used to combat negative forces within this market.

That for me, is a desirable future. One I would like to help shape.What do you think?

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New Social Compact

A Calamitous Week

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Something is infinitely wrong in the picture, a juxtaposition of polar opposites:  New Zealand, a country of unfailingly courteous and kind people, and an extremist terrorist killing 40 Muslims at prayer.  Of course, modern guns made it possible, a hate-filled extremist of Australian origin set the stage, and a country not familiar with such violence — thus an easy target.  All together they broke the proverbial camel’s back.

My own experience of New Zealand — visiting universities and delivering the occasional lecture as academics do — was uniformly pleasant.  It was as if a piece of 1950s England had been sliced off and transported to the Pacific, down to the egg, sausage, bacon and tomato breakfast.  The numerous small kindnesses of the people one met left a warm glow.

I was therefore, quite unprepared for Australia, the only country where I have been taken aside into a room to be grilled by an immigration official for what seemed an eternity.  People are people:  The hotel receptionist was welcoming and helpful.

At the Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland was appearing in The Daughter of the Regiment to a sold-out first night.  As luck would have it, a ticket return was my ticket in .  Quenching a thirst during intermission, the withering looks of fashionably-dressed matrons is now an aide-memoire.  Otherwise, I might have forgotten, as I have, for example, the performance at Schloss Schonbrunn outside Vienna.

Universities are different of course, and students and professors tend not to harbor such prejudices or exhibit them within the ivory towers.  The conference was much like others.  Australians in person seem friendly, unselfconscious and lacking the class prejudice common in England.  I must add that I have counted quite a few as friends and academic colleagues over the years.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outburst at New Zealand following the shooting was a trifle premature.  Of Turkish origin, 40-year old Gorkmen Tanis opened fire inside a tram in Utrecht, Netherlands killing 3 and wounding 3 others.  Hate and more hate in a world of conflicting values and customs, coming into sharper focus as people travel outside their own countries (and comfort space) in quest of greater economic reward.  Necessity or greed, opportunism or adventure, each individual has his own motivation for leaving home. 

The situation is not improved by jingoist politicians exploiting it during elections or otherwise (Modi in India or Trump in the US) trying to boost standing with their base support.

Calamities other than from the barrel of a gun but perhaps not unaided by human hand gave us an historic deluge mid-March, flooding almost the whole state of Nebraska.  Rich countries have the resources to limit deaths in these catastrophes but not the devastation and the ruined lives of those who have to start all over again.  In Mozambique, however, President Felipe Nyusi fears the death toll will be far higher than the present 200 estimate in the aftermath of cyclone Idai which hit the port city of Beira.  We are told it is possibly the worst storm ever to hit the southern hemisphere; its path of destruction enveloped Zimbabwe, Malawi and of course Mozambique.  In addition to the deaths in the latter, another 150 at least have perished in the other two countries, and thousands injured.  The inundation and loss of crops are expected to impact the lives of more than 2.6 million people.  

Calamities engineered by man or by nature aided by man are the story this week.  Can we change? 

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