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Amplifying The Unheard Voices: An Exploration of Period Poverty Through Caste and Class Intersection

In 2007, Miranda Fricker came up with the ground-breaking theory of Hermeneutical Injustices. It explained how the language to express your oppression is critical in identifying it. Thus, knowing your pain is a privilege of the learned. It is through this lens of undefined oppression, disparity and marginalization that I intend to write this article to explore and understand how our system has excluded the much-needed voices of the Dalit, transgender and non-binary persons.

Owing much to activism in the past decade, the topic of menstruation and menstrual hygiene has come to occupy the stage of public and however rarely, political discourse. Unfortunately, this dialogue has included a disproportionately high number of savarna, upper-caste/class cis-women, and thus, has been dealt with in a structure guided by social privileges and capitalist disparities.

Throughout history, the word ‘menstruation’ has been associated with women in the binary sense. This is the complete invalidation of the lived experiences and struggles of, as pointed above, trans men and non-binary persons. Moreover, this also completely overlooks women who don’t menstruate (trans women and women with PCOD, for example).

To understand anything well, we must understand not only the socio-politics of the time and place but also that of history. Historically, menstruation has cultivated a very patriarchal notion of “purity” as a bid to maintain the gender power dynamics. Some scriptures go as far as to claim that a menstruating woman should not look at a man while he is eating. If the mere glance of a woman threatens your masculinity, what masculinity are you even defending? Oh, also who made the food you’re eating?

This idea of ‘purity’ is not limited only to menstruating women and is eerily reminiscent of the caste hierarchies that have plagued the Indian society for aeons. Some women’s rights activists in the past have claimed that each woman is a Dalit because she faces discrimination, especially when she is menstruating.

This narrative is not only hugely problematic but is also simply, untrue. Caste, gender and class should be treated as overlapping axes of privilege and oppression but should not be used interchangeably. They work by complementing each other by shaping a person’s social identity.

A cis upper caste woman is unlikely to know the struggles of an Adivasi woman, and to claim so is garden variety appropriation. Whereas an urban upper-caste woman is not allowed to enter a temple during her menstruation, a Dalit woman isn’t allowed that for her entire life. It means periods are regarded as defiling only to an upper-caste woman’s dignity because we never attributed any dignity to a Dalit woman in the first place.

Debates about period leave and such, in elitist leftist circles or the echo chambers of Twitter, where the privileged women (and god forbid if men) are the judge, the jury and the executioner, are undoubtedly important. But they do little for the Adivasi, Dalit, poor and rural women who cannot afford to stay at home during their periods or even afford pads.

A survey conducted by the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS), released in 2015-16, revealed that while in urban India, 77.5% women observe safe menstrual practices, the numbers stand at an average of only 48.2% for women in rural areas. Women in rural areas have to not only suffer through the ordeal of menstruating in the absence of proper sanitary options but also be subjected to unimaginable social discrimination fueled by illiteracy, stigma, deeply etched patriarchy and lack of appropriate knowledge.

This culture of silence is so deeply etched, that 70% of mothers consider their menstruating daughters “unclean” and according to a study conducted jointly by Water Aid, PATH, Zariya, Development Solutions and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, only 55% womxn believe that periods are normal. The lack of proper sanitary products causes menstrual infection in 14% of women.

We must ask ourselves, do we, clouded by our privilege, think of these issues motivated by genuine concern or for the mere sensationalism of these accounts. Mainstream discourse dominated by cis upper-class savarna women has systematically failed to include the silenced voice of the marginalized people. We must yield the people their due space and voice, and we must work towards region-specific and goal-oriented comprehensive solutions. We must use our privilege to amplify these voices that matter but are unheard. We must pass the mic!

(this article was written for BloodSafai, a campaign to increase awareness about and political expression of period poverty, and the need sustainable menstrual hygiene products, in collaboration with YouthKiAwaaz network. Please sign our petition link for the same:

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