Menstruation is still a taboo in remote areas of Uttarakhand

For women, periods are not just about physical but also mental hardship as they are treated as impure and untouchable during those five days.

Times have changed, so have certain traditions but the clock seems to have stuck when it comes to villages of Uttarakhand. In the 21st century, too, the social conditions of women who reside in the hills remain vulnerable when their counterparts in other societies have made big advancements. They still work in challenging conditions for 14-15 hours a day, managing basic needs of daily life such as wood for cooking, fodder, food and water for family. And the worst part is that amid a life full of hassles, they fail to take care of their own health.

Inhibitions over menstruation

Even today, most of the rural societies remain male-dominated where women have little or no right to take decisions. While they carry out the daily household chores, their lives remain trapped in traditions. Menstrual cycles are a part of women’s lives. Every year, May 28 is observed as the Menstrual Hygiene Day all over the world and the goal of this occasion is to educate women about hygiene and safety during their menstrual periods. Yet, women – from rural as well as urban areas – still consider it a taboo to talk about it and a lack of awareness puts their own lives at risk.

When used cloth is all a woman needs

According to the owner of Kamal Medical Store, a pharmacy located in Dharanauli in Dhari development block in Nainital district of Uttarakhand, very few women customers visit his shop and even among those who choose to, they do so for buying general medicines. The sale of sanitary napkins is woefully low at 10-15 per cent despite the health department conducting health camps in villages to caution women about the risk of using clothes during menstrual cycles which can cause infection. Still, women from the rural areas remain indifferent towards their own health. In a way, they are helpless when it comes to physical well-being despite being key members of their community.

Menstruating women are considered impure

In Uttarakhand, women in most rural societies are treated as untouchables in times of menstruation. Girls and women are made to spend four to five days in ‘Goth’ or places where domestic animals are kept. In fact, in many villages, menstruating women are asked to stay away from kitchens and temples. They get the permission to do certain work only after undergoing ‘purification’ on the fifth day. At a time when women require a hygienic living and nutrition and other physical and emotional support, they are made to feel uncomfortable in their own families.

Health turns fragile

Nandi Devi, a resident of Sheela Lekh village in Dhari development block, Nainital, said 65 per cent of women in the hill areas get married between 18 and 20 years, “I don’t know why girls become a burden for their parents after completing intermediate education.” Nandi Devi herself got married at a young age and by the time she turned 28, she had three children. At 40 today, she has a threatening blood pressure and diabetes and feels to be physically weak.

People like Nandi Devi bear the brunt of pregnancy at an early age and the indifference shown by her family members towards her health and this is a reality in Uttarakhand where an average 50 per cent of women face such challenges. Women become physically feeble only in their 40s because of early marriage, early pregnancy and lack of adequate health care.

Pregnant women at far-off places in the hills deliver at home under the supervision of midwives even today and one of the main reasons why they face such a situation is lack of medical facilities. Such a scenario speaks volume about how casually the society and administration treat women’s health.

What the doctor says

Doctor Megha Sharma, a gynaecologist in Haldwani, said, “Women, who almost single-handedly run the household, face a number of health issues and common among them are irregular periods caused by hormonal disbalance; tiredness caused by a weak body; irritability; blood pressure issues; diabetes and hypertension; PCOD or polycystic ovary disorder and during menopause.

According to her, women should do regular health check-ups after 40, including tests for high blood pressure, thyroid, diabetes, heart ailments, bone mineral density. Dr Sharma said even a pap smear test should be undertaken every two years to avoid cancer besides lipid profile examinations based on medical advice. “A woman can only protect her family’s health only when her own health is secured,” she said. 

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