The Evolution of Menstrual Stigma in India

of adolescent girls in India remain unaware of menstruation until they experience their first cycle.

That adds up to 85.2 million young women that have no prior understanding of what a menstrual cycle actually is. The reason for this gap in health education can be greatly attributed to the stigma surrounding menstruation that is heavily influenced by Indian culture.

In many parts of India, menstruation is still considered to be impure. This is due to a Vedic myth that dates back to 1500 BCE. The myth followed Indra, an ancient deity known as the King of Svarga (Heaven), as he battled the dragon son of a brahmin, Vritra. After enduring many battles, Indra killed Vritra, but it was not the victory that he had imagined. As Vritra died, a terrifying looking woman emerged from his mouth. Her name was Brahmahatya, and she was the personification of the sin of killing a brahmin. As retribution for this sin, Brahmahatya decided to place the burden upon women in the form of a monthly menstrual flow. In some versions of the myth, it is even said that those who decided to engage in sexual activity with a woman during her menstrual cycle would also carry the burden of the sin.

The transmission of this myth across many generations of Indian families has had serious implications for Indian women during their cycles. Some restrictions include:

not being able to enter the puja/prayer room as the woman’s body is seen as impure; being unable to prepare food due to the belief that it will become contaminated; and needing to be purified before returning to her family.

Furthermore, in order to protect water from pollution, many women are not allowed to bathe during the first few days of their cycle.

However, in some Indian societies, the menstruation cycle is celebrated. In the Kamakhya temple of Assam, the Goddess Kamakhya Devi is worshipped as the bleeding Goddess. For three days every June, the temple closes to celebrate Ambubachi Mela - a festival that recognizes the Goddess who is known to have her period. Additionally, in the South of India, public gatherings are sometimes held to celebrate a young woman getting her period. While these traditions seem to recognize menstruation as a natural bodily process without the attachment of any stigma, the real reason for celebration is linked to the belief that the young woman is now fertile and able to reproduce - a supposed function of women in India. 

The stigma surrounding menstruation in India affects more than family life and prayer, it also affects the future and safety of Indian women. 23% of girls in India drop out of school when they begin menstruating. This not only affects their future job prospects and lifestyles, but also hinders their ability to dispel the menstrual stigma. 77% of menstruating girls in India do not have access to sanitary and safe period products, due to both financial and accessibility reasons and the belief that they are not important. This increases susceptibility to infection, which can further the stigma surrounding menstruation and lead to mental health issues for young girls.

As young Indian girls learn to question their education and push back against the oppressive culture that governs their bodies and minds, the deep rooted stigma surrounding menstruation slowly begins to dissolve. This act of questioning needs the joint support of all mothers, fathers, and friends of India, and it is only once the bodies of Indian girls become their own that their safety and bright futures can be ensured.