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How Women With Disabilities, Women In Sex Work, Women In Jail & Queer People Menstruate

Disabilities Women Menstruate

As today (May 28th) is World Menstruation day, the topic may be out in the open but the stigma remains in the society as a whole. #MenstrualHygieneWeek is a campaign by The Logical Indian to create awareness, ask pertinent questions, get answers and bust myths.

Menstruation is a normal physiological process, but that has millions of local words across the globe. And another thing is that it happens only to people who are born with vaginas, that means 50% of the population. Such people include women, transmen, lesbians, queer, non-binary people, etc. All of them are neglected, and least discussed parts of our society, thanks to patriarchy. Women, in general, don’t get the dignity they deserve and let alone be these segments. India has about 48% women population. Women face discrimination in all walks of life. From sex-selection at birth, lower education and nutrition access, early marriages, lower wages, etc. Beyond all this, they face another problem every month – discrimination and lack of facilities during menstruation. In some parts of India, it takes the form of – staying out of village leading to incidences like snake bites  (Kaur, 2015) and facing harsh climate or staying inside the home as an untouchable (Sunila Garg, 2015). Others are forced to keep working in these days to maintain their job and compete with a male society.

While discrimination against women, with or without periods, is reasonably well documented, there are other different people, including women who face much more discrimination in their daily life. Their everyday life is a struggle, and very little documentation of their problems related to menstruation exists in the literature. For some people the issue is, dependency on others, limited or no access to information about their own body, menstruation and menstrual products. To understand this, I did a research on such people. This study explores how these menstruators have their periods and what they feel about it. These include women with disabilities, women in sex work, women in jail and people of LGBTQ community who may not identify as women still bleed every month. These menstruators are underserved and have not received enough attention. Generally, urban and rural women are studied, but this segment of women/menstruators is not considered. For this study, we have labelled them as different menstruators.

To understand the situation, interviews, focused group discussions were conducted of people mentioned above. Firstly let’s understand in brief about these categories of people.

Firstly, let’s discuss women in jail. Women detained in prison are growing administrative, societal, and public health concern. Due to a lack of female doctors, their problems and diseases remain untreated for years. They carry a much greater burden of illness than other members of the society; they harbour diseases that are determined both by the environment out of which they come and by the prison in which they live. The normal life of the inmate is restricted, freedom of movement is curtailed, and private space is limited. There are about 1401 prisons in the country with an authorised accommodation of 3,66,781; however, the total number of jail inmates is above four lacs indicating severe overcrowding in prisons (National Crime Records Bureau, 2015). Looking into the health problems of prisons will show us a way for the approach in providing health care for prisoners. The society will discuss Their menstrual and reproductive system issues.

Next category is women in sex work. A few women have chosen it as a profession, but most of them have been trafficked. They live in brothels or small houses in slums. These women have specific mental health, physical health and financial concerns. They are underserved and not treated with dignity by society. These women are prone to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV because not all of them use contraceptives. Since they are migrated from different areas, they may not get health services they need and may not be treated well by doctors. Some organisations are working to provide health care services but only a few of them focus on menstrual issues of these people. These women have to work every day irrespective of menstruation, or any health issues as their earnings depend on their work.

The third category is women with disabilities. Historically in India as elsewhere in the world, there has been a deep-rooted cultural antipathy to persons with disabilities. They have been portrayed as medical anomalies, helpless victims and a lifelong burden for family and society. Sexual and reproductive rights are considered irrelevant for persons with disabilities. Gender emerges as a critical analytical category in perceptions of sexuality among young men and women with visual and locomotor disabilities. Also, women with intellectual disabilities are compelled to do hysterectomy so that parents or caretakers won’t have to deal with the mess and also keep them away from unwanted pregnancy. Furthermore, negative stereotyping of persons with disabilities as either asexual or sexual perverts find expressions in the media, films and matrimonial columns validating its neglect as a priority in their day to day lives. In terms of menstruation, there is lack of awareness and sensitisation among caretakers, and they need to work with women with disabilities to make them aware of own body, understand why they menstruate and how to manage their period safely with pride and dignity.

The fourth category is people who menstruate every month but are non-binary, transmen, queer, etc. These people are mostly closeted because they are afraid to come out in public, in family, at the workplace, school/college. They are discriminated at every place and they may face mental health issues due to that. They are also discriminated at hospitals by doctors and don’t get non-judgemental health services. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people continue to experience various forms of oppression and discrimination throughout the world, despite the social, legal, and political advances that have been launched in an attempt to grant LGBT people basic human rights. Even though LGBT people and communities have been actively engaged in community organising and social action efforts since the early twentieth century, research on LGBT issues has been, for the most part, conspicuously absent within the very field of psychology that is explicitly focused on community research and action–Community Psychology. Numerous studies have demonstrated a heightened prevalence of depressive and anxiety disorders among lesbian, gay, and bisexual groups as compared with heterosexuals. The menstrual issues and their perception of is not very well documented.

All these categories are unique and have a different set of needs, but most importantly sensitisation of people around them is necessary. The studies give insights into what all can be done and ways to address issues. There are very few documented studies of their problems, particular discrimination and plight during menstruation. Presenting this is expected to start a dialogue towards resolving their issues, providing them comfort, better facilities, etc. Lot of work has happened with women in rural areas, slums, schools. Very less work with these four categories. Each section of women needs a different study and solutions. They have different experiences and issues


Findings of the research are as follows:


People of the LGBTQ community

People shared that most of them have not come out to their parents, friends and at the workplace as they have a fear of judgement and abandonment. Most of them have mental health issues, and they are struggling to cope with it. Most queer people found menstruation unpleasant as they may not identify themselves as a woman. These people are judged by their looks, the way they talk and do things.

“I am judged over my choice of hairstyle, called a tomboy and automatically it’s assumed that I’m less competent because of my appearance and a visible tattoo on the chest.

Also, they are discriminated at the workplace, home, and while using public transport because they look different than other women. Other people don’t use pronouns correctly like ‘they/them, he/him’ and purposefully use pronouns like ‘she’, ‘her’ which hurts the LGBTQ people.

During my periods, I got a lot of hate from my family because ‘real men don’t have periods’. I always felt uncomfortable changing a pad or tampon when I was in school or if anyone was in the house. I had a lot of dysphoria during my periods.


Figure 1

These people found it difficult to accept that periods are the norm as they didn’t identify as a woman. Also, they had to struggle every time they got periods. Very few accepted it and dealt positively. One of them also thought of committing suicide every time they received their period. Most of them shared that they feel nothing about periods now but teenage years were a struggle. Some of them hate periods since onset. Eating painkillers is common. But there were few exceptions like these-

“I’ve had a positive relationship with it since it started because I’ve never had pain, I’m an athlete, and now ever since I started using the menstrual cup I love getting my periods, it’s taught me more about my body than anything else.”

 

They were asked what kind of toilets they prefer during menstruation, they responded that they prefer women’s restrooms because changing pads/tampons is easier and disposing of is possible but sometimes aren’t allowed to enter women’s toilet because of their appearance. It is embarrassing and tense to change pads in men’s washroom. Some of them use gender neutral or disabled friendly restrooms.

These people were asked if they visit a gynaecologist when required and how are they treated there. They shared that they have not come out to their doctors and it’s tough to find non-judgemental, LGBTQ friendly doctors. They are trans/homophobic and judgemental and that results in people of LGBTQ feeling discriminated and not getting treatment and healthcare services they need.

When asked about what products they use during periods, some of them use disposable sanitary pads, while some use cloth pads and very few use menstrual cups. Cups are discreet yet comfortable; hence it is a preferred solution by few of them. Disposing pads is an issue, yet some of them find it convenient to use.


Figure 2

They were also asked if they get support from friends, family, at the workplace during periods. They shared that, they get support from different people, mostly mother, friends who understand them as transmen or non-binary and understand their frustrations/struggle. Support is mostly in the form of giving food, medicines, asking them to take rest. They were rarely shamed by their support system.


Female sex workers

Unlike queer people, female sex workers accept menstruation but spend a lot on painkillers and alcohol to keep working. Some of them joined sex work in early age, most of them are in sex work for 10+ years. Menstruation is not a taboo in brothels as all women get periods and it is considered normal. Elder ones in the brothel are support system for female sex workers. Everyone can live freely there. Women get medicines, cook food for each other. There is no support from home as they have migrated from their homes either because of trafficking or by forced circumstances. They have no family to return to. Some of them have children but they are at boarding schools.

These women get support in each other but that is not enough for them. They are sometimes discriminated at medical stores, local doctors. Doctors and co-ordinators of the Trust are good and treat them well. They receive many health care services from these Trusts.

Once I step out of brothel I know men are going to look at me in dirty way, women are going to hate me for the work I do. We are prone to rape and our phone number is asked by many men.

The discrimination does hurt these women but these women help each other in all ways possible. These women become family for each other.

It was observed that brothels don’t have toilets or place to rest for women. Women have to rely on public toilets and they are unclean. They have to go far to change their pads. Sometimes they have to change their pads in front of their client or they use just 1-2 pads for a day which gives them itchiness. Sometimes condom is also not used during periods. Hygiene is not maintained during those days. They rarely get time to rest and are forced to do work due to financial issues.

The pain during periods affects their work, use of painkillers is very common and lots of money is spend on buying medicines and pads. Some women avoid working in those days. They prefer using disposable sanitary pads as they are easy to use. Disposing them is a major issue but they don’t have any other alternative. Elder women prefer using cloth as they are nearing menopause.

Most of them have entered this work because of forced circumstances, some have come in this because of their husband or boyfriend. Many female sex workers feel brothels are safe than living outside. But they are also scared of raids by policemen.


Women with disabilities

There are three types of people and their caretakers were interviewed- women with locomotor disability, women with visual impairment, and women with intellectual disability. All of them were born with a disability. They all shared that they didn’t know about menstruation and weren’t prepared when they got their first period. Each category of women looks at menstruation differently. They have a different set of needs depending on their disability. Women with locomotor disability and visual disability find it difficult to go to washroom every time to change their pads. They need support, but it’s not available anywhere. One woman with polio shared that she finds menstrual cups as better option during periods than pads as they are easy to use and they don’t move and leak like pads during any movement. These women find it challenging to change pads at the workplace or public toilets as they aren’t disability friendly.

All of them have felt discriminated at home, workplace, public spaces. Very few are offered help at public spaces. The younger ones interviewed are struggling to live on their own and attend college. The older women travel with some help, while the women in rural areas can’t travel on their own and are never sent outside. They aren’t allowed to study. Women with locomotor disability are trying to do some business from home. Women with locomotor disability and visual impairment felt that they are considered asexual, and their sexual and reproductive rights are denied.

Women with intellectual disability are considered a burden by their parents and very few are taken care of nicely. In schools and workshops, girls and women don’t understand how to manage their periods and their teachers help them. Caretakers have to keep reminding intellectually disabled women to change and dispose pads.


Women in jail

Women face a lot of issues related to menstruation, like- white discharge, abdomen pain, heavy bleeding, irregular periods and infections. These go unreported. Under trial women don’t get clothes in the jail, so they use each other’s clothes and skin infections keep spreading. And they don’t get treatment immediately. That doesn’t help. Also, there isn’t clean water in some of the jails. So women prefer using disposable pads than cloth. Disposal mechanism for sanitary pads needs to be found out. Incinerator was given by some organization but it’s not functional. Some of them shared that the pads they get from Government are of poor quality, so they have to depend on donations given by NGO’s.

These women aren’t treated well by their superintendents and don’t get treatments in time. Also, the unavailability of female doctors worsens the situation. They can’t express clearly in the presence of male doctors. Due to the unavailability of enough guards, women aren’t sent to civil hospital in time. Also, the places they stay are congested which doesn’t give them enough space and they may not get enough rest and nutritious food they need during periods. Stealing of clothes, medicines are very common in women jails, so women don’t get the care they need.

In some jails, there are social workers appointed by certain organisations like Tata Trusts, Samta Foundation who create awareness about health among inmates. Also, it was observed, inmates aren’t aware of the facilities available at the jail. They have hardly any support from their home, and that affects their attitude towards self. They don’t eat well, and they don’t care for themselves and keep feeling guilty for what they did. Most of them shared that they came to jail because their family member trapped them in some case.

About the writer: Rajasi Kulkarni Diwakar is human developmentalist and menstrual health educator and activist. She’s based in Mumbai and has worked in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. She conducts educational sessions for women and girls on menstruation and reproductive health. This article is part of her research paper which she will be presenting at Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Conference, 2019, Colorado Springs, USA.

Menstrual Hygiene Day is on 28th May and this article is part of a campaign to create awareness on menstrual hygiene.

What does menstruation mean to you? Do you twitch a bit or sit uncomfortably at the mere mention? Want to share your experience? write to us at mystory@thelogicalindian.com, remember to hashtag #MenstrualHygieneWeek.

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