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Shame and stigma: The taboo of menstruating in South Asia

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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

Women in leadership ‘must be the norm’

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Ola Alaghbary, co-founder and chairwoman of a youth foundation in Yemen, works on empowering women to make positive changes in their communities.photo: Heba Naji

We can no longer exclude half of humanity from international peace and security matters, the UN chief told the Security Council on Thursday, emphasizing the need to fully address the challenges and gaps that continue to prevent women having an equal say.

Today, women’s leadership is a cause. Tomorrow, it must be the norm”, Secretary-General António Guterres told the meeting, covering landmark resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.

Frontline women

Having just visited the photo exhibition, In their Hands: Women Taking Ownership of Peace – a collection of inspiring stories of women around the world seen through the lenses of women photographers – he told ambassadors that the exhibit brings to “vivid life” their dedication to “the most important and consequential cause of all, peace”.

“From the safety of this chamber, we discuss and debate pathways of peace for countries around the world”, said the UN chief. “But the women portrayed in the exhibition are on the front lines of the fight for peace”.

He called them peacebuilders, changemakers and human rights leaders, and described their work mediating and negotiating with armed groups; implementing peace agreements; pushing for peaceful transitions; and fighting for women’s rights and social cohesion throughout their communities.

Yet, he pointed out, “women remain on the periphery of formal peace processes, and they’re largely excluded from rooms where decisions are made”.

Disheartening trend

Citing rising rates of violence and misogyny; the extreme under-representation of women in decision-making positions; and a myriad of challenges faced by those in conflict, the top UN official observed that the power imbalance between men and women remains “the most stubborn and persistent of all inequalities”.

In every humanitarian emergency, the clock on women’s rights has not stopped. It’s moving backwards”, he said regretfully.

In Ethiopia, women have been victims of sexual violence; in Yemen, excluded from political processes by the warring parties; in Afghanistan, undergoing a rapid reversal of the rights they had achieved in recent decades; and in Mali, after two coups in nine months, “the space for women’s rights is not just shrinking, but closing”, Mr. Guterres said.

‘Fast-track women’

The UN chief stressed: “We need to fight back, and turn the clock forward for every woman and girl” – the commitment outlined in Our Common Agenda and Call to Action on Human Rights.

“Increasing women’s representation and leadership across every aspect of the UN’s peace activities is critical to improving the delivery of our mandate and better representing the communities we serve”, he said.

But Council’s support is needed for partnerships, protection and participation.

Women leaders and their networks must be supported to meaningfully engage in peace and political processes, he explained.

Secondly, women human rights defenders and activists must be protected as they carry out their essential work.

And finally, women’s “full, equal and meaningful participation” must be supported in peace talks, peacebuilding, and political systems as countries transition to peace, he said.

We need full gender parity”, underscored the UN chief. “We know it can be done”.

Advancing women’s rights

Women should not have to accept reversals of their rights in countries in conflict, or anywhere else.

Mr. Guterres said that the UN will double down on “truly inclusive peacemaking” and put women’s participation and rights “at the centre of everything we do – everywhere we do it”.

The best way to build peace is through inclusion, and to honour the commitment and bravery of women peacemakers we must “open doors to their meaningful participation”.

Let’s turn the clock forward on women’s rights and give half of humanity the opportunity to build the peace we all seek”, concluded the Secretary-General.

Time to say ‘enough’

To create a tangible difference in the lives of women and girls, UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous, highlighted the need for governments and the Security Council “to step up” to address the way we confront peace and security issues.

For too long violence has targeted females and their rights; and women continue to be marginalized and excluded “in those very places where they can drive change”, she told the Council.

“Surely the time has come to say enough”, she said.

Open doors to women

While acknowledging a “glimmer of light” resulting from the passage of the original resolution, Ms. Bahous said that while not enough, it must be used in the fight for women’s equality.

Noting that vast military spending has been “in bitter contrast” to limited investments in other areas, she advocated for curbing military spending and expressed hope that delegates “share my sense of urgency” on the issue, which impacts other priorities, including women’s rights.

The UN Women chief noted that increased participation, combined with curbing the sale of arms in post-conflict settings, significantly reduces the risk of backsliding.

She reminded ambassadors that while “equal nations are more peaceful nations”, equality requires higher levels of support for healthcare and related services.

Moreover, Ms. Bahous regretted that women’s organizations are poorly funded, noting that without the necessary financial resources, they cannot effectively carry out their work.

Turning to Afghanistan, she shone a light on the women who had collaborated with the UN and whose lives are now in danger, advocating for doors to be opened wider, to women asylum seekers.

Women at the stakeout

Subsequently, former Afghan women politicians took to the Security Council stakeout to ask the international community to pressure the Taliban “to put their words in action” and fulfill their promises made in 2019 in Qatar including supporting girls’ education and women’s rights.

“The reason we are here today is to meet with different Member States and ask them to regard women and human rights in Afghanistan as a matter of national security of their own countries, because it’s not just a political or social issue but it’s a matter of security”, said Fawzia Koofi, former Peace Negotiator and first woman Deputy Speaker of Afghan Parliament.

Former Afghan Parliamentarian and Chairperson of the House Standing Committee for Human Rights, Civil Society and Women Affairs, Naheed Fareed, questioned whether the world wanted to “register in history” their recognition of “a de facto structure that is in place in Afghanistan”,  to represent Afghan women, their dignity and desires. “From my point of view, they don’t”, she told reporters.

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New Social Compact

Gender Mainstreaming and the Development of three Models

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The field of gender mainstreaming plays a central role in the debate of critical feminist International Relations (IR) theorists. Reading the influential work of Enloe 2014 regarding the locations and the roles of women in the subject of IR brings women into the central discussion of international studies. However, some of the feminist IR scholars defy the negligible participation of women in international political theory and practice. 

The main aim of gender mainstreaming is to achieve gender equity in all spheres of life (social, political, economic), without any doubt that gender mainstreaming has had a central role in pushing the strategy of realising gender equity since the concept’s inception. However, feminist IR scholarship admits that it is not the best approach, or in other words, the right pathway concerning feminist struggle. There are many different approaches and mechanisms in which such dissatisfaction is conveyed; nonetheless, at the axis of Postcolonial Feminist scholars debate, gender main streaming depoliticises the concerns of feminist scholars. Feminist studies show that theoretically, the change of structuring of gender equity determinations from women to gender in gender mainstreaming perhaps contradicted achievements made to bring women from the periphery to the centre of Feminist IR. 

The emergence of Models in Development:

Discussion asking to what extent women have been benefited (or not) from the developmenthas given rise to the following three models. These approaches show how men and women are affected in different ways because of the development of how the lives of women, in particular, are affected. 

Women in Development (WID):

By the 1970s, the reality that women were subjugated and left far behind in the process of development became clear and widely recognised. In some areas, this recognition even acknowledged development has further worsened the status of women, for example, the exclusion of women from the main development projects. The Women in Development (WID) approach proposed the inclusion of women into programs related to development. WID was a successful initiative that strengthened the consideration of women as an integral part of society. The decade of 1975 to 1985 was even declared the decade of women. However, this approach was problematic, as WID did not focus on structural changes in social and economic systems, which were necessary for discussion. Furthermore, this approach was not enough to bring women to the mainstream of development successfully.  

Women and Development (WAD):

Thisapproach was critical and arose in the late 1970s using Marxist feminist (critical) thoughts. As its nature, the Women and Development (WAD) approach criticised WID because of an increasing gap between men and women. According to WAD, the idea of women’s inclusion was wrong because women already contributed substantially to society. Yet, they were not receiving the benefits of their contributions, and WID further contributed to global inequalities. The main rationale of WAD was to increase interactions between men and women rather than just implementing strategies of women’s inclusion. Besides, WAD considered the class system and unequal distribution of resources to be primary problems, as it’s women and men who suffer from the current system. On a theoretical level, WAD strongly endorsed changes to the class system; however, it proved impractical as it ignored the reason for patriarchy and failed to answer the social relationships between men and women. 

Gender and Development (GAD):

In the 1980s, further reflection on development approaches started the debate of Gender and Development (GAD). As GAD followed and learned from the weaknesses and failures of WID and WAD, it was a more comprehensive approach. GAD paid particular attention to social and gender relations and divisions of labour in society. The GAD approach strove to provide further rise to women’s voices while simultaneously emphasising women’s productive and reproductive roles, contending taking care of children is a state responsibility. As a result of GAD, in 1996, the Zambian government changed their department of WID to the Gender and Development Division (GADD). These changes made it easier for women to raise their voices more constructively in an African country. Gender development is a continuous, current phenomenon. Women have choices today that they did not have in prior or even the last generation. 

The main point is that instead of discussing whether to mainstream gender or not, it needs to be discussed how it can happen in a better way. Gender mainstreaming is considered a theory of change in GAD. 

The above discussion has offered an overview of how gender mainstreaming’s theoretical approaches and expectations have met with the praxis; however, some scholars critique the concept of depoliticising and diluting equality struggles. These considerations are also worth inquiry and, accordingly, are discussed below. 

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New Social Compact

KP’s Education Reforms – Heading Towards Right Path

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The first word revealed in the holy Quran was “Iqra” which means “to read”. This first verse of Holy Quran shows us the importance of pen, greatness of knowledge and importance of education in Islam. Article 25-A of Pakistan’s constitution obliges the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and sixteen. Education is the reason behind rise and fall of any nation. After the 18th amendment, on April 19th 2010, the education sector was assigned to the provinces, with a hope that provinces would focus on providing quality education, as previously; there was a lack of comprehensive planning and strategy in this sector.

During its second stint in KP, PTI-led government declared an education emergency in the province. As part of election manifesto, PM Imran Khan reiterated his firm resolve to upgrade education system across KP. Consequently, during past three years, KP government has focused on the neglected education sector and introduced various revolutionary steps to improve the quality of education.  

The provincial government is spending heavily on building infrastructure and basic facilities. The number of non-functional schools have been reduced massively due to effective policies. A real time focus is given to the lack of facilities like boundary walls, water supply, electricity, and toilets. To get rid of load shedding issues, the government installed thousands of solar panels in schools to have an un-interrupted supply of electricity at daytime.  Simultaneously, increased annual budget for education.

The present age is known as an era of Information Technology (IT) and a nation cannot progress without making full use of it. Therefore, the provincial government has established thousands of state of the art IT labs across KP. It is pertinent to mention here that Microsoft has also endorsed this effort and offered to train above 15000 IT teachers with free certification.

The major five-year revolutionary educational reform plan (2019-2023) was brought by department of Elementary and Secondary Education as a flagship project of KP government in this tenure. The four core aspects of this innovative plan includes teachers’ training, curriculum reforms, establishment and up-gradation of schools and the appointment of new teaching staff.

In order to reduce teacher to student ratio it has been decided to hire 65,000 new teachers well versed with modern education techniques, including 11,000 primary teachers under this five years’ plan. So far, more than 40,000 teachers have been recruited on merit bases through NTS. After the merger of tribal districts in KP, the education Ministry has approved a handsome amount for the restructuring the current education system. In order to modernize the current education system, KP government has established 138 Data Collection Monitoring Assistants (DCMAs) in tribal districts.

Taleemi Islahi Jirga (TIJs) are converted into Parent-Teacher Councils (PTCs) and connected them with education ministry with an aim to keep a check and balance. Government has introduced a new concept of school leaders and aims to train about 3,000 leaders who will be responsible for monitoring the classrooms, lesson management, implementation, and daily school life.

The process of expanding teachers’ training program to all districts of the province is also in process. Furthermore, the education department has almost completed its working on the development of high-quality script lessons for different subjects. Textbooks for classes 1 to 10, will also be revised according to modern standards by 2023.

Another milestone achieved by KP government is the establishment of Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU). This vigilant monitoring system has reduced teachers’ absenteeism by 17% to 20%. It also constantly collects reliable data which is helpful for realistic planning.

Previously, teachers used to take salaries without performing any duties; however, with the advent of biometric attendance system, those ghost servants have been captured. Enrollment drives have been organized every year. Government is giving free books to the children including drawing and coloring books to enhance their creative thinking. Government is also stressing on female education through its new policy of building classrooms with a ratio of 2 for female and 1 for male.

To impart the true teachings of Islam, Quranic education and Nazira is made compulsory up to class 12th. In a refreshing development, students of private schools are migrating to government schools due to student-friendly policies.

Nevertheless, there is room for improvement in the education sector like linking promotions of teaching and administrative staff with performance. Government teachers should be made bound to enroll their children in public sector. The concept of uniform curriculum will create national thinking. Another important aspect which needs attention is to address the growing role of tuition and coaching centers. Technical education should also be focused from the base. Experiences of others successful educational models like Finland model may be studied to improve the sector.  

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