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  • Writer's pictureMehr Fatima

Unveiling the Taboos: Menstrual Hygiene Challenges in Jammu and Kashmir's Religious Institutions

Menstruation is a topic that is surrounded by silence, shame, and social taboos. This is further manifested in social practices that restrict mobility, freedom, and access to normal activities for menstruating women. Some cultures restrict menstruating women from consumption of milk, honey, and pickles. Some do not let them prepare food or perform any religious ritual. In some other cultures, menstruation means no human interaction and social isolation. It does not only impact discussion around menstruation as a biological phenomenon though. This also affects the notion of menstrual hygiene.

The World Health Organisation(WHO)/United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund(UNICEF), Joint Monitoring Programme, 2012, defines Menstrual Hygiene Management as ‘Women and adolescent girls using a clean menstrual management material to absorb or collect blood that can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of the menstruation period, using soap and water for washing the body as required, and having access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materials’.

According to a report, usage of sanitary napkins in India remains low, only 50 per cent of women, aged 15-24 use sanitary napkins, and that too mainly from the urban areas. A vast majority of women don’t have proper sanitary disposals. With only 74.5 per cent of women using sanitary methods for menstrual protection and 60 per cent of women using cloth for menstrual protection, Jammu and Kashmir ranks lower in North India in the usage of the same (Uttam, N. p 3-4).

For women in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir, the MHM is an issue shrouded in myths and taboos, especially (but not only) in rural areas. Society in Jammu and Kashmir remains religiously conservative, and quite closed when it comes to open discussions around menstruation and related issues. Not only are phases of menstruation clouded by superstitious beliefs, but reproductive tract infections, which are a silent epidemic, also go unnoticed due to the taboos and stereotypes surrounding them.

The J&K government launched a scheme called Menstrual Hygiene Scheme that tends to cover sanitary essentials distribution under the National Health Mission. This programme provides girls and young women with sanitary products and other essential supplies that are necessary to provide them with a healthy life. But this is not enough to stop the talk of misinformation and superstition with regard to the issue. With respect to this, there is an essential role religious institutions play.

In the rural areas, and certain urban pockets of J&K, these institutions play a key role in supporting girls and young women in pursuing education. They also provide shelter and monetary assistance to the girls belonging to disadvantaged sections. These institutions play a significant role in the upward mobility of these girls. Hence, it is pertinent that they are equipped with proper knowledge about menstruation hygiene. This is, sadly, not the case. Most of these religious institutions are run by male patrons. There are certain lacunae in the structure regarding the awareness of menstrual hygiene. Strict religious norms surrounding the interaction between genders add to the difficulty. There is also a lack of coordination between these institutions and the administration. Latter is more focused on public schools and colleges when it comes to the MHM. For female students studying in these institutions, due to stigmatization associated with several myths and practices associated with menstruation, negative outcomes follow. Also, religious schools mainly shelter students belonging to the less affluent sections of society, so, it might also be the reason for the lack of attention given to these.

Moreover, there is a lack of awareness of puberty and menstrual health. Before menarche, many girls do not even have an idea what periods are (though this is not limited to those studying in religious institutions only). Few women with menstrual problems seek help. For instance, restricted access to working bathrooms continues to be a barrier, affecting menstruating girls and women disproportionately. Even when toilets are available, cultural customs, hygiene habits, and community attitudes about menstruation limit others to use the same washroom. The availability of disposal infrastructure, as well as community attitudes and views regarding menstruation, influence how women and girls should eliminate their waste. Various misconceptions and practices associated with it result in adverse health outcomes. Women are not allowed to touch sacred things, and in some cultures, women are even isolated and put into menstrual huts.

Public avoidance around menstruation makes it a private and largely hidden custom.

Cross-cultural studies of a number of societies suggest nothing connected with Menstruation is seen as positive. Menstruating women and menstrual blood have been identified as being dangerous, poisonous, and polluting. Menstrual women were believed to contaminate whatever they come in contact with (Dhingra R., et al). People do not talk about it openly as it is seen as a matter of disgrace. On the one hand, society tends to celebrate women’s bodies when they bear children but menstruation, a prerequisite for pregnancy, is something they are expected to hide. The way menstruating bodies quickly turn from miracle makers into polluting agents is quite telling about the general attitude towards a woman’s body. The stain becomes the mark of shame.

According to Irfana Zargar, a noted activist working for a safe space for discussion around menstruation, it gets difficult to undertake such endeavours due to administrative and societal constraints. She also expressed her concerns regarding the lack of proper sanitary essentials in public washrooms. In her campaign, Eva Safety Door, she has carried out door-to-door distribution of sanitary napkins and other essentials as a step towards making menstruation and related issues part of a larger public discourse. While she has received mainly positive responses from the public, there have been certain obstacles too, including even women rebuking her for publicly talking about such a ‘personal’ matter. She also rued a lack of awareness amongst men regarding such an important part of women's reproductive health. The society’s conservative outlook regarding the same does not help either. She also underlined the lack of awareness of puberty and menstrual health. For female students in religious schools, an extra barrier of segregation exists and due to shame surrounding this issue, challenges for them become even more steep. She emphasized upon the need to have more openness and sensitivity on this issue, especially from the religious institutions. In addition to that the government needs to equip the stakeholders with more resources and induct locals into focused groups that would work for the sake of it. This issue cannot be dealt with only by bringing out new schemes, better groundwork is needed, she concluded.

It is important to note that information about menstrual hygiene remains surrounded by legends and prohibitions. Also, how women and girls dispose of their menstrual waste is influenced by the availability of disposal infrastructure as well as community attitudes and perspectives on menstruation. These institutions, many a times, lack in this regard also.

Religious institutions can play a significant role in perpetuating myths and taboos around menstrual health and hygiene, as well as, in debunking them. The lack of resources, and awareness, put these girls and their education in jeopardy. They may harbor feelings of embarrassment and annoyance when they do not have appropriate or sufficient facilities for sanitation and hygiene. There is a shortfall in civil society actors such as schools of religion and administrations, due to the prevailing situation in J&K. In addition, mistrust around the medically-authorized products tends to complicate the situation.

In Jammu and Kashmir (and elsewhere), through formal and informal communication, adolescent girls need to be properly equipped with all the necessary information. In order to encourage the use of sanitary products, it is necessary to make them available free of charge or at a nominal price. They should be taught about reproductive infection and its prevention in these religious schools and institutions. For this, the religious institutions need to be more open to collaborating with other stakeholders. Menstruation is not just a biological phenomenon but a social one and continues to be a barrier to gender equality.

Further Readings

National Health Mission, Government of J&K. (n.d.).

Mattoo, F. (2022). Women In Kashmir Lack Awareness Of Menstrual Hygiene. Youth Ki Awaaz.

Uttam, N. (2023). Menstruation: Role of NGO’S in Promoting Menstrual Health and Hygiene in Jammu and Kashmir | International Journal of Indian Psychȯlogy.

Kotwal, S., Charak, G., Kumar, S., Shekhar, S., & Gupta, K. L. (2022). Knowledge and Practice of Menstrual Hygiene and Reproductive Tract Infection in Adolescent Girls in Doda District of Jammu and Kashmir Territories, India. International Journal of Integrated Health Sciences, 10(2), 59-64.

Dhingra, R., Kumar, A., & Kour, M. (2009). Knowledge and practices related to menstruation among tribal (Gujjar) adolescent girls. Studies on Ethno-Medicine, 3(1), 43-48.

Kapoor, J. (2017). A descriptive study to assess the knowledge and practices of menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls of government women college parade, Jammu. Age (in years), 16(18), 19-21.

Manhas, S., & Asmat, S. Religious-cultural construction of menstruation among purig and balti tribes of Kargil, Jammu & Kashmir.

Asmat, S., Manhas, S., & Dolkar, T. (2019). Myths Associated with Menarche and Menstruation among Tribal Females of Kargil District, Jammu and Kashmir. Int. J. Curr. Microbiol. App. Sci, 8(6), 2408-2415.

World Bank Group. (2023). Menstrual Health and Hygiene. In the World Bank.

Pti. (2022, May 11). About 50 per cent of women aged 15-24 years still use cloth for menstrual protection: latest National Family Health Survey report. The Indian Express.


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