Abstract: Women’s Agentic Role in Enabling and Dismantling Menstrual Health Taboos in India: A Structurational Analysis

◆ Meghana Rawat, Purdue University
◆ Ashleigh Shields, Purdue University
◆ Maria Venetis, Purdue University
◆ Jyoti Seth, Government Degree Girls College, Chandigarh

Recent studies report the need for menstrual health and hygiene management in India, highlighting a lack of awareness and reproduction of social taboos (MacRae, Clasen, Dasmohapatra & Caruso, 2019). Some prevalent taboos label menstruation as ‘dirty’ and prescribe a set of rules which limit behavior during menstruation including prohibiting entering religious areas or the kitchen, not touching pickle jars, and in some dire situations, staying outside of the home. Menstruation is often associated with physical conditions (i.e., cramps, headaches) and hormonal changes that require informational or emotional support, and strong cultural taboos create barriers to seeking support and normalizing menstruation.
Scholars suggest addressing issues around pain management, social support, and an enabling socio-cultural environment, which reinforces the taboos for effective intervention in India (MacRae et. al, 2019; Hennegan, Shannon, Rubli, Schwab & Mendez-Torres, 2019). Such interventions are successful when planners understand existing structures and perceptions of their target groups. Therefore, structuration theory (Giddens, 1984), which captures the relationship between the agent (women) and structure (socio-cultural norms around menstruation), was selected to explore the consensus and contradictions around menstruation . The theory emphasizes that the constitution of agents and structures are mutually impacting.
Data collection included 18 focus groups of college-going women in Northern India from one rural and one urban township. We also conducted 12 in-person and telephonic interviews with mothers and elder sisters. Following transcription, thematic analysis produced three emergent themes:
Routinization and Rejection: Women expect and accept most of the norms due to social and familial traditions. Social dynamics, specifically recent positive media portrayal of menstruation led participants to express a strong desire to change rules around menstruation and discuss how certain taboos such as not touching pickle jars are not realistic.
Explanations and Lack of Information: Participants reported minimal menstruation-related education when in high school, and that education was limited to learning about pad usage. Their education excluded causes of menstruation and other changes that occur along with menstruation. Geographic location (urban vs. rural) amplified participants’ identification with taboos, but in both locations, participants expressed the need for increased education, particularly before menstruation, and the inclusion of boys in the educational sessions.
Expectations and Generational Change: All mothers reported that as young women, they used a cloth to manage menstruation but now encourage their daughters use pads rather than cloths. Further, they shared that they ‘only’ stopped them from entering religious areas because of culture. College-women participants expressed that they would like to provide their own children more information that extends beyond pad usage and behavioral rules.
Data revealed that participants retained agency in enabling as well as dismantling some taboos around menstruation. Most of these taboos exist due to traditions. Over the years restricting kitchen entry and use of cloth has declined because of modern nuclear families and access to affordable sanitary products. Similarly, increased access to scientific knowledge to both young men and women, and avenues for support at the systemic level can contribute to structural changes.