It’s no secret that as women we’re confronted with sexist stereotypes on a daily basis.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace – and you don’t have to look far to find examples.
And these aren’t our only constraints – even mentioning your period at work is taboo. We’ve all been there – caught unawares at the office with no tampon or pad to hand and forced to request supplies from a female colleague, stuffing the offending item up our sleeve in the hope that no one catches wind of the fact that – God forbid – we’re on our period.
Shame surrounding menstruation is nothing new. As women, we’ve become masters of disguise when it comes to the travails of monthly bleeding. We sweep all the brutal realities of periods – the pain, the leaking, and the emotional upheaval – under the carpet, covering them up like a dirty secret. And that dirty secret and feeling of shame extends to our places of worship, where we’re subjected to more isolation and degradation during that one time in a month when perhaps, all we’re looking for the most, is comfort from prayer and spiruality.
Kerala’s Sabarimala Ayyappa temple prides itself as being open to all, regardless of religion, caste or creed (perhaps an underhanded gibe at neighbouring Guruvayur, catering only for Hindus). And yet, how open is Sabarimala? Classifying itself as Nithya Brahmachari (celibate), women between the ages of 10-50 aren’t allowed – and if they do attempt to get in, the authorities prevent them. A restriction that many bodies in Kerala have tried to overturn, but so far, in vain. Staunch religious players claim the restriction is from ‘time immemorial’ and that the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, being a celibate, even the ‘slightest deviation’ caused by the presence of young women on the premises would be undesirable.
To me, the sheer fact that the rules appear to be different between the two temples adds to the argument that these restrictions are entirely man-made – that man is choosing to decide and act on behalf of God, as suits him.
As part of my work with the Cherie Blair foundation I was mentoring a woman in Nairobi who told me about her own experience of periods. Up until this point, I too was covering up my dirty little secret, month-in, month-out. But this interaction, 5 years back, shook me to the core and made me want to fight back. She said that women in Kenya had no access to sanitary products and instead of pads or tampons they would use anything they could find to stem the bleeding, including straw, sand, animal skin, dirty rags and sometimes even cow dung.
Horrified, I began researching and found that this was far from uncommon. Debilitating cultural stigma attached to menstruation in many parts of the developing world, particularly across India and Africa where periods are often considered dirty, even “evil”, prevents women and girls from attending work and school and forces them into ever-more degrading circumstances to hide their bleeding.
It made me realise that without ready access to sanitary pads, I could not have achieved anything significant in my life. Especially as I had lived my life in a very male dominated environment.
I felt it my duty to give these women a voice, a passion that soon became an obsessive compulsion to achieve menstrual dignity. And that’s how Binti was born.
Binti is a charity that seeks basic menstrual dignity for all women. For the past three years we have been fighting to provide access to hygienic sanitary protection for vulnerable women, raising awareness about the menstrual cycle and advocating the normalization of periods by smashing the shame around it.
My work with Binti has taken me to places I never dreamed possible – from educating girls in slums and villages across India, Nepal, Nairobi and Swaziland, to setting up sustainable business initiatives enabling women to produce and sell their own sanitary pads and campaigning for menstrual education and taboo smashing here in the UK. Partnering with local charities and companies on corporate social responsibility projects, has led to the development of two local production units in Gurgaon and Uttarakhand, giving women the resources and power to make their own pads.
But education around menstruation is vital to ensure these projects are successful. The only way we can begin to give girls and women the dignity they deserve is by turning limiting cultural stereotypes on their head, providing education and smashing the entrenched cultural shame surrounding menstruation today. The women need to understand why we’re enabling them to make the pads and the benefit to the community when the girls understand what a period is. Traditionally, girls consider a period to be dirty; they don’t know where the blood comes from, why they bleed or how to take care of themselves. Binti currently provides education in Indian schools where, with the use of physical props, we’re giving the girls a sense of what’s happening inside of their own bodies. And these classes are soon to be supported by educational videos, to be released later this year into three local languages.
All of this is by no means an easy feat, even here in the UK where women at least have a voice through charities and social media. So teaching classes in Nairobi slums, getting trainers stationed in Swaziland – places where just mentioning periods, let alone educating girls about menstruation, is considered a huge taboo – has been the single most challenging thing I have ever done. It has also been without doubt the most rewarding.
Binti is going from strength to strength as we take on more and more volunteers both in the UK and overseas, expand our education programmes and raise awareness of our work in the national media. We are bravely challenging cultural stereotypes and smashing shame every day. And we will continue to do so because every girl deserves dignity. Period.
– Manjit Gill is the CEO and founder of Binti International, a social-enterprise. Binti seek to empower women by eliminating the social and cultural stigma surrounding menstruation.
– Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.