Before heading to India for a month-long voluntourism trip the summer after my first year of university, my biggest concern was not the June heat in Calcutta, the language barrier I would face or getting all of my travel immunizations in order—it was my period.
My family originates in India, but I was born and raised here in Canada, which means that I had the privilege of easy access to tampons, pads and *more or less* open conversation about menstruation among my friends and female relatives. Case in point: my dad used to buy my pads during his weekly trip to the grocery store. (Note: I found this mortifying at the time, but it now makes me beyond proud of my pops.)
However, travelling back to the motherland, I knew that I would not necessarily have ready access to a “western” toilet, since squat toilets are common in India and range in form from porcelain to a hole in the dirt. In addition, with the trip largely based in rural villages and low-income areas, there was never a guarantee that I would have access to a garbage bin, soap or clean water. While this was a challenge for me during our short one-month stay, it’s a daily reality for many of the 358 million Indian women between 15 and 54—as recently detailed by Suits star Meghan Markle in an essay for Time.
Markle travelled with World Vision to Delhi and Mumbai, two of India’s biggest cities, to investigate how women and girls deal with their periods, and what she found became the basis of a powerful essay that has since gone viral.
Here are the key points:
Missing school because of menstruation is a huge issue
In the absence of proper sanitary supplies, many Indian women and girls end up using rags during their periods—and just stay home. Markle does the math and notes that if girls are absent from classrooms during their periods, they stand to miss up to 145 days of school a year.
This is not an India-specific problem
The stigma surrounding menstruation is arguably worldwide, and Markle highlights specifically sub-Saharan Africa, Iran and India as struggling with this issue. For instance, last year Time ran a first-person piece by a Kenyan writer detailing what having her period entails for each month, and it is a must-read.
Shout out to Michelle O.
This topic is not new, and Markle tips her hat to the former FLOTUS, who spoke to the World Bank about how periods are preventing young girls from completing their education. (Side note: UNICEF, UNGEI, Emory University and the Canadian government joined forces to create this report outlining the issue and what nations can do to help better manage menstruation in schools.)
Stigma leads to lack of education, which leads to damaging misconceptions
Again, not a new concept but it is an important point. Without proper education and discussion around menstruation and feminine hygiene, Markle points out that some girls are left to believe that their periods are actually their bodies “purging evil spirits,” or that they are injured.
Addressing this issue will help women rise up in society
“We need to push the conversation, mobilize policy making surrounding menstrual health initiatives, support organizations who foster girls’ education from the ground up, and within our own homes, we need to rise above our puritanical bashfulness when it comes to talking about menstruation,” concludes Markle. There are multiple groups taking action to combat this issue, such as Jatan Sansthan, a women’s group in Udaipur, Not Just a Piece of Cloth and other advocates like Arunachalam Muruganantham, a young man who created a machine that washes sanitary pads and was the subject of a documentary called Menstrual Man in 2013.