Recently, I read a story about a young woman in rural Nepal who burned to death because she was having her period.
Partabi Bogati was following the ancient Hindu practice of chhaupadi (from a word that means “impurity”), which sees menstruating women as bearers of disease, disaster and bad luck; they are barred from handling food, using public water sources, or sleeping under the same roof as their families. Bogati was spending the night in one of the small mud or wooden huts, some no bigger than a closet or a foxhole. She died trying to stay warm.
The article about Bogati echoed one I’d read a month earlier about Amba Bohara and her two young children, who died of suffocation in a chhaupadi hut. Six months before that, Gauri Kumari Bayak died of asphyxiation — also inside a menstruation hut. The previous year, a poisonous snake bit and killed Tulasi Shahi while she was riding out her period in her uncle’s cowshed.
I think these tragedies hit me hard because of “The Red Tent.” The title of my novel about women from the bible refers to a menstrual tent where women gathered and rested during their periods, after childbirth and when they were ill. My fictional tent was a respite from the relentless work of pre-modern life. It allowed women time to share history and wisdom.
The notion of a communal monthly retreat struck a chord with many readers. But when I hear women wax nostalgic for a monthly time-out, I feel obliged to reply that my account has nothing to do with the facts about menstrual sequestration, which for the most part has been, and remains, cruel and dangerous.
“The curse” is less an old-fashioned euphemism for menstruation than a clear-eyed description of the price of having a body that bleeds. In Africa, India and Central America, the absence of safe, affordable sanitary products limits access to education and jobs for many girls and women.
And this is not a developing world problem.
It was only two years ago that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons issued a policy that women incarcerated in federal prisons be supplied with “feminine hygiene products related to menstruation.” As if tampons were a luxury. This rule, by the way, does not apply to state prisons or county jails, where women still may have to pay for their pads. In some homeless shelters and immigration holding pens, a normally functioning female body can be an additional source of humiliation and illness.
Pads and tampons are not covered by SNAP benefits (the low-income assistance program formerly known as food stamps), nor are they provided to students in most public schools. Drives to support local food pantries rarely focus on the need for sanitary products.
Change is afoot, but it’s coming in baby steps.
The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, made international headlines when she visited a microfinance business in the slums outside of Mumbai, where local women proudly manufacture and sell sanitary napkins to their neighbors. Emphasis on “micro.”
The Nepalese government has criminalized chhaupadi, but the practice is so entrenched that even Gauri Kumari Bayak, who was leading birth control classes and telling women to stand up for themselves, succumbed to pressure and crept into the hole where she died.
Every day in the United States, countless women and girls have to choose between food and tampons. (They are countless because they are invisible.)
Only nine states, including Massachusetts, have eliminated taxes on menstrual supplies. Only three states (New York, California and Illinois) require public schools to provide free products, without necessarily providing funding.
Many small women-run non-profits (i.e.: Dignity Matters, Free the Tampons, I Support the Girls) do their best, raising money and collecting menstrual products for shelters, programs for the homeless, victims of family violence and schools that serve poor students.
These are good efforts, but half measures become less tolerable with every story about a death by menstruation, with every woman elected to office and with every movie told from “her” perspective.
Gloria Steinem once wondered what the world would be like if men menstruated. You can bet that bathrooms and even outhouses would feature supplies of tampons and pads — right next to the toilet paper; as they should be — everywhere on the planet.
And where there used to be huts and foxholes where women were sent to suffer, we’ll build a clubhouse where sisters and friends go to relax and learn, and where mothers can tell stories about the bad old days to their unbelieving daughters.
This essay first appeared 2/8/19 on Cognoscenti