GOALPARA, March 7 - Even though women in the North East are quite empowered than their counterparts elsewhere in India, but shedding the stigma surrounding menstruation still needs more attention. The myths associated along with it continue to exert constraints on women�s behaviour and mobility.
Even as the world is all set to celebrate International Women�s Day tomorrow, efforts are still needed to address the challenges faced by women as they are considered impure during their periods. In many places, instead of managing menstruation in a hygienic way, women suffer from social exclusion.
Menstruation remains a taboo among the people of Goalpara district too. Even though the district has a mixture of myriad tribes and communities, the women chose to remain silent and not discuss about it when this correspondent interacted with a cross section of people.
However, women like Chempi Rabha, a student of Goalpara Govt BT College; Sakuntala Rabha of Dudhnoi, Sabhya Raha of Rangjuli � all members of the Rabha community, and Subhadhra Basumatary of the Bodo community, while discussing the subject, said that taboo and issues associated with menstruation remain the same in their communities. Though there are no social restrictions, except some religious ceremonies, they said they are also not forbidden to carry out activities in the kitchen.
With education and empowerment, women in these communities have started enjoying greater freedom. But they also said that due to the process of sanskritization and inter-community marriages, some people have started emulating the customs and rituals associated with the dominant castes, where social restrictions are put on women during menstruation.
Among the Garos, who are a matrilineal community where the dominant role is played by women, the main issue is menstruation management and they do not see it as a taboo or unclean. Among the Muslim community, no stigma or segregation is associated around menstruation but a woman cannot offer prayers and is also exempted from fasting during her periods, said Prof Abul Hussain of Goalpara College.
Sangita Sarma, a research scholar working on woman emancipation and feminism, said that women have been able to break the traditional barriers of social restrictions, myths and beliefs and no longer have to fear from stigmatization and isolation.
They can now take part in various economic activities even though the mindset has not changed much in the rural areas. She said the topic is never discussed openly in rural areas, and there is a lot of stigma that runs deep around periods being �dirty and unpleasant�.
She said that even though this was a taboo subject, managing menstrual hygiene has emerged as a major issue when it comes to gender equality and development.
Sangita Sarma said other issues related to sexual and reproductive health caused by poor menstrual hygiene need to be raised and discussed openly in society.
Moreover, she pointed out that historically, the status of women in Assamese society has undergone a remarkable change but with the change in traditional roles, a sense of independence and self-conceit has entered their minds and at present, women see themselves in complementary roles with their male counterparts.
She said that with the spread of women�s education and empowerment, restrictions due to menstruation especially in urban areas have become more liberal and �Tuloni Biya� � the ritualistic public celebration of a girl�s menarche � is on the decline and mostly observed as a private affair.
She said women still have not been able to break the shackles of the patriarchal structure and society is again reverting to traditions, relying on various dharmashashtras which put restrictions on women during periods.
On the other hand, new cultural elements borrowed by the Assamese society from different cultures � like extravagant modern weddings running for a couple of days that include mehndi and sangeet as pre-wedding ceremonies � have been gradually devaluing the status and turning women into a commodity.
Dr Subhas Barman, principal of Goalpara College, said steps have been taken to ensure better menstrual hygiene management for girl students. The college authorities have installed a sanitary pad vending machine and disposal unit at the Goalpara College girls� hostel. The girl students were educated on how to use the machine and sanitary napkins were available at a minimum cost of Rs 5 only.
Deputy Commissioner Varnali Deka said a new mindset is needed to address the sociocultural issues and myths related to menstruation. Comprehensive strategies are needed to combat the taboos and social restrictions which otherwise spill over to other aspects of girls� personalities. She said that with education and empowerment, women have been able to overcome social taboos and their role in decision-making has also added good leverage.
Deka emphasised the need for awareness and education for women to know what was happening to their bodies. The government has been supporting menstrual hygiene initiatives under various schemes under the National Health Mission (NHM), she said, urging all stakeholders to come forward to dispel menstrual taboo and end discrimination and shame associated with it.
She said that with better understanding of menstrual hygiene and availability of low-cost sanitary napkins under government schemes, apart from adequate sanitation and provision of toilets, girls now do not miss schools during their periods.
Deka said community health workers and adolescent-friendly health counsellors have been engaged for creating awareness on menstrual health.
She said the Adolescent Reproductive & Sexual Health Clinic (10-19 years) for non-communicable diseases, set up under the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakam has been looking after the health needs of adolescents.