Breaking Taboos on Menstruation and Disability

Rachel’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.  

Many taboos have been attached to menstruation and only very few cultures across the world have acknowledged it as a natural phenomenon. The menstrual cycle is a natural process intrinsically linked with a woman’s body. However, because of these taboos, it’s directly correlated with many health problems of women and their overall development; socially, educationally and professionally. India is one place where menstrual practices continue to be bound by superstition in many regions of the country.

Where menstrual superstition prevails women are considered impure and unclean during menstruation and are excluded from society during the period. According to a study conducted by Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP) around 84% of the adolescent girls interviewed said they were taken by surprise when they got their first period. And around 60% of women diagnosed with common reproductive tract infections reported poor menstrual hygiene, according to a 2012 United Nations Population Fund study. Further according to study in 2015 on menstrual hygiene practices, that only 15% of women use commercial sanitary protection, while 85% use home-made products. In the interviews for this study the product used during menstruation range from cloth to make-do pads stuffed with ash, husk or even sand. In a survey conducted in 2011, it was revealed that in north India, over 30% of the girls interviewed dropped out of school after they start menstruating. Also, the reproductive tract infections (RTI) were 70% more common among women who were unable to maintain hygiene during their menstrual cycle.

Before training, WwD are sensitized about menstrual hygiene

Evil spirits, shame and embarrassment surrounding sexual reproduction are some of the traditional associations for the taboos on menstruation. There has been the belief that menstrual blood is dangerous or that burning the menstrual cloth is necessary to prevent it from being used by evil spirits. Most women resist using a sanitary napkin because it is difficult to dispose of them. They fear it might fall into the hands of someone who can use Jadu Tona (black magic) against them or can be used by an evil spirit. “Over 77% of menstruating girls and women in India use old cloth, which is often reused without proper cleaning. Further, 88% of women in India sometimes resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and husk sand to aid absorption”. (Garg, 2015) Poor protection and inadequate washing facilities may increase susceptibility to infection and fail to eliminate the odor of menstrual blood, which puts girls at risk of being stigmatized.

The situations of Women with Disabilities (WwD) are even worse in regards to menstruation. And hence WwD faces two-fold discrimination: as stigmatization associated with both disability and gender. Disability, according to the World Health Organization is an umbrella term that describes, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in daily life situations. Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. Therefore disability is a public health, a human right, and a development issue.

Women with disabilities are the most vulnerable and marginalized in society. According to World Bank data on disability, there are about one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, who experience some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries. In India, based on the 2011 census, there are 26.8 million, or 2.21%, of Persons with Disability, out of which there are 2.41 % are male PwDs and 2.01% are female PwDs. However, the issues faced by WwDs are often not very visible to the general public, even both among those who are actively promoting the rights of PwDs and those who are promoting gender equality. Therefore there is not proper sufficient public-access data available on these issues. Gender, disability, and health are interconnected with each other and women with disabilities are at higher risk of chronic health issues. The lack of accessibility is one reason for the disadvantage situation for Women with disabilities. The accessibility can be issued relate to education, health services, employment opportunities, transport, social and political rights. Along with all these Daily WwD in India face accessibility to and lack of toilets with disabled-friendly features as well.

The Government of India has introduced schemes to tackle the many consequences resulting from the taboo attached to the menstruation. One primary effort works to distribute free sanitary napkins to overcome the financial barrier to access to hygienic materials. And in the case of WwD, they are already considered as a burden by the family so spending an extra amount is something unthinkable for the mainly economically disadvantaged category. Under the National Rural Health Mission, low-cost sanitary napkins were locally made and distributed, particularly in rural and slum areas to combat the hygienic practices of using cloth and unclean sanitary pads.  However, standard sanitary napkins are considered to be non-biodegradable and are very dangerous for the environment.  The polymeric sanitary napkins, which have replaced cloth napkins to a great extent, are made of materials that are non-biodegradable, leading to the accumulation of used napkins in landfills.

Hence under Samerth, my host organization which has been implementing the Social Inclusion Program of Sightsavers in Chhattisgarh organized training on Menstruation Health Management (MHM) in Raipur. The training aimed at promoting health and hygiene among WwDs apart from training discussions were held around gender issues, pregnancy, reproductive organs and menstruation as a natural phenomenon in women. The training was provided to the participants on making low-cost eco-friendly sanitary napkins for themselves and for selling in local markets through their PwD Self Help Group. It provided a platform for WwDs to address and accept the issues openly relating to the menstrual cycle in the SHGs and making it accessible for them to acquire it. It also economically empowered them by creating a market and promotes their livelihood activity. While doing all this they are creating awareness and contributing to a sustainable environment with an eco- friendly product.

Among the experience shared Participants shared during their menstruation common response like they try to hide their menstruation or they were not allowed to go to the kitchen, the place of worship, etc. They were also not allowed to go out of their houses due to which much of their work got affected. Most women used cloths during menstruation and caused problems in the skin. Apart from this, women also use the sanitary pads that are available in the market. After using them either throw them in the garbage or shed them in the river pond. This can cause serious environmental issues and may affect their health as well.

WwD who Participated during the Menstrual Health Management organized by my host organization.

This is the reason why there should be an option which emphasizes the use of such material, which will not harmful to the environment and also ensure the health of women. And everyone could easily prepare it at home. One of the main features of this is that it does not have to be thrown out after washing it after drying it and then dry it again. In the training, some films related to menstruation on how women reacted to it initially and there was an open discussion on the issues of their conception of menstruation. After the discussion, WwD have a better understanding of menstruation and also the importance of being sensitive about paying attention to its management.

Now WwD in the SHG have been making sanitary pads in the SHG and also their attitudes towards menstruations have changed. There has been a great attitudinal change where now WwD SHG comes to their SHG workplace even during their periods and they can openly discuss with other members about it which was not possible before the training and workshop on menstruation. They have to gain more confidence among themselves to address health issues attached to menstruations more openly in order to be able to find a solution together with other WwD SHG members.







Born and brought up in Nagaland, in the Northeastern part of India, Rachel always wondered if people could make use of the abundant natural resources in such a way that it would help improve livelihoods in a sustainable manner. Having completed her graduation in Political Science, she is keenly interested in understanding the intricacies of different aspects of rural areas. This motivated her to pursue a Master’s in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. During these two years, she volunteered in Care and Support Society, Nagaland, gained experiential learning with People Action for Creative Education, Telangana, as part of the course curriculum, and undertook an internship with Rajasthan Grameen Aajeevika Vikas Parishad, Rajasthan. She had worked in broad areas like livelihood for persons with disabilities in Nagaland, rural development in Telangana, health and gender related issues of the rural communities in parts of Rajasthan. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Rachel aspires to gain in-depth knowledge and develop perspectives on development sector initiatives, challenges and probable solutions to these.

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