Intractable problem of sexism

Why is women’s equality so hard to fathom?  Sometimes I am just stunned … because when you think it can’t get worse, it does.

Sometimes projects that aim to address problems that affect women replicate the structures of sexism and violence that make women’s lives difficult in the first place.  It happens in subtle as well as overt ways. Continue reading


“Eat like a lion”

“Tell that dietary tip,” Uma Babusekhar urged Sundari Vishwanathan.  “Eat like a lion and …”

Sundari obliged.  While most of us might use a simple phrase such as “eat foods that are high in fiber,” the trainers at Vasantha Memorial Trust have a more colorful way of putting it.  I gently requested them to reconsider their word choice.  Grinning brightly, they effused, “Eat like a lion and eliminate like an elephant.”

Continue reading


Unindicated Hysterectomies

While clearing up after lunch yesterday I mentioned to Uma Auntie and Samyuktha that the women in the villages were having hysterectomies after going to the doctor for such a small thing as white discharge. As I had learned this just before leaving I did not have time to find out more, and in any case I myself would have to learn more about this before I could try to advise them though in one sense anything is better than what is happening now. One could wish that they saw a better doctor who would give them the right advice but my fear is that once they see a doctor the likelihood of getting medicine and surgery just shoots up. And the doctor says that the patient wants action, the patient says that she was following the doctor’s orders. So how to get out of this loop – better not to enter it.

“I know a doctor couple who have been campaigning on this issue, do you want to meet them?”  asked Uma Auntie. Continue reading


Of stitching and stitches

As we were preparing to leave Appalagraharam, a young tailor named Jaya came over to Nirmala’s home to meet me.  She had not been at home the other day when we went to visit the other tailors in the village.   She had stitched the bags with multiple compartments that we would market as carry-all totes, or the equivalent of diaper bags though with a name that does not suggest the use of diapers.   Maybe Baby Totes. She had also stitched the new model nursing kurta, with a V-shaped front and snaps.

Among our new tailors, she was stitching the most neatly. So I looked even more closely at her work, to generate a checklist so that we would have a flawless product that people could order directly from the village and receive by post, without my serving as an intermediary.

As I examined the seams and snaps, she and Nirmala started talking quietly. After a few minutes Nirmala told me, “ఆవడికి చాల రోజులు నించి ఇక్కడ నొప్పి ఉంది”  (she has been having pain here), pointing to the chest area. Continue reading


The Cup and The Conference

While some of us were chatting after the panel discussion on women’s empowerment, Kamayani asked me, “Why don’t we have a small group talk with women to tell them about the menstrual cup?  I wouldn’t have known if you had not told me about it.”


I remembered the day in 2005 when Kamayani Swami spoke in College Park about her plans to work in Bihar and the brief moment I caught to tell her about the cup.   I had since written, “Greeting Aunt Flo” but clearly it was time to bring the cup to the notice of a new set of AID women. Continue reading


Seven Fallacies about Menstruation and Culture

Never have I so acutely felt the weight of Jonathan Swift’s remark, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it” as now, after responding to a “viral” article propagating pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in connection with menstrual untouchability, which is a crime against women just as untouchability is a crime against humanity. To top it off, this article suggests, in conclusion, that reviving traditional customs may effect social change and greater respect for women. The author is not some cranky old chauvinist male but a woman who works with government schools and health departments to teach girls and women about menstruation.  Girls certainly do need spaces where they can speak freely and ask questions about menstruation, to know it is not shameful and that their bodies are just fine.  How awesome would it be if after a presentation on the subject they could go home and declare, “I am not polluting, I don’t have to sit in the corner or in the shed. I can go where I want, when I want. I am free! Instead we hear that when girls ask questions about why they are not allowed to touch people, pickers, temples, etc, this particular teacher tells them that untouchability is “a personal choice” and that the myths and rituals reinforcing it are rooted in “ancient wisdom” when women were “worshipped.” How many adolescent girls, hearing a teacher in school offer you on the one hand patriarchy masked as “ancient wisdom” and on the other “personal choice” will choose the latter? I hope this response can increase that number:

Ask Amma

Several people have forwarded to me an article, written by an educator, connecting “ancient wisdom” to the practice of menstrual taboo, and pitying the misguided women who expect modern ideas of gender and feminism to empower them.  After cataloguing popular justifications for menstrual untouchability and suggesting that they come from a time when women enjoyed respect, indeed worship, in contrast to the present context of crimes against women, the author concludes that menstrual taboo is a matter of “personal choice.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Would those who condone menstrual untouchability extend their reasoning to untouchability?  Is it also a personal choice for us to connect to the “ancient wisdom” through the practice of untouchability?  With more than enough relatives who would be all too happy to think so, I take this as a wake-up call

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Towards a Breastfeeding Model that Works

In Part II of my talk on Gender, Work, and Health, presented at the National Labour Institute in Delhi, first to a group of research scholars from various parts of India and second to a group of policy makers from different countries, I talked about how a rights-based approach would improve implementation of policies that would bring about a Breastfeeding Model that Works.

A breastfeeding model that works:

  • Recognizes the importance of breastfeeding

  • Accords with World Health Organization Guidelines and the Indian Constitution and Maternity Benefits Act

  • Recognizes the importance of food.


Breastfeeding is the normal way humans feed their young, and also introduce their young to the diverse flavours of foods.  Currently in India, however, only 1 in 3 babies is exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months, and even fewer continue breastfeeding for at least two years, as the WHO Guidelines recommend. Continue reading


Gender Work and Health – Part 1: Birth

Gender, Work, and Health

Women’s Health from a Women’s Rights Perspective

Following are notes from a presentation I gave at the National Institute of Labour as part of a training program on Gender, Work, and Health.  I presented on Women’s Health from a Women’s Rights Perspective, focussing on three themes, Birth, Breastfeeding and Food. 

Before I continue to the three themes I presented, let me share some of my own apprehensions about speaking to both of these audiences.

My brief was to talk to the Ph D students about research methods and to the health officials about policy. Continue reading


Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food

On 10 March 2014, I spoke about Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food at a Training Program on Gender, Work and Health held at the National Labour Institute, Delhi.  In one session, graduate students from institutes in various parts of India attended.  In another session, Health Officials from various countries attended. Continue reading


Could the menstrual cup work for Indian Women?

Update:  Shecup now supplies the menstrual cup in India

Could the menstrual cup work for Indian Women?

Using the cup has the potential to make the days of a woman’s menstrual cycle feel “just like any other day” of the month. Considering that a normal period usually lasts 3-7 days, this represents 10 – 25% of a woman’s life during the years that she is menstruating. The average woman will menstruate for 35-45 years, minus about 2-3 years for each baby she carries to term for 9 months and exclusively breastfeeds for at least 6 months. This is easily 30 years or 360 months in which she must be aware of and manage her menstrual flow.

Traditionally women have torn or cut up old clothes and folded the cloth into layers that absorb the blood that flows during the period. Those who have enough water can wash and reuse these; those without adequate water supply may risk reusing improperly washed cloths, possibly resulting in health problems. While the method is economical and relatively ecofriendly, the folded layers of cloth may prove bulky and difficult to change while out of the home. Given water and soap for washing, cloth pads cost little or nothing, and so one can change them as often as desired for maximum comfort. Ready-made cloth menstrual pads available in North America, Europe and China offer women the comfort of cloth in contoured, stitched pads that are neat, trim and easy to change and wash. Women can easily use these even when traveling or going out to college, office, etc.

In India, the only convenient option for women on the go has been disposable sanitary napkins. All varieties on the market are made by multinational companies. Therefore there is a sharp contrast between the old fashioned local method and the modern western method. There are no pre-stitched cloth menstrual pads that allow women comfort and convenience at low cost. In order to be as comfortable with a disposable pad as one could be with cloth, one would have to change the pads at least every two hours, perhaps more during heavy flow or hot and humid weather. For an average period of 5 days, this would require a minimum of 50 pads, running to Rs. 100-150 per month. For many women this is unaffordable and as a result they will change pads less often so as to use fewer pads. Therefore a commercial product that is marketed as offering superior benefits is actually used in a way that works more poorly than the home-made solution, much the same way low income parents may purchase expensive baby foods and then dilute them.

While disposable pads do not require washing, they do require sanitary disposal. This is also difficult to find in most places and the sight of used pads in the open is not uncommon. Even when cost is no concern, a woman may refrain from changing a pad as soon as she wishes, simply for want of a place to dispose the used pad. Therefore she continues wearing it until she can identify a sanitary place to change it. This is not only uncomfortable but can also exacerbate the cramps that affect many menstruating women.

Because of these worries and discomforts, most women consider the days of their period somewhat inconvenient if not downright painful. Apart from discrimination and superstitions regarding menstruation that many women, both urban and rural continue to face, women themselves are not able to treat these days exactly like all others. While planning any special event, outing, or important work, a woman will hope or try to ensure that it does not happen during her period. Since periods are not always regular, one leaves a margin of error, meaning even more days are ruled out. These are just a few of the myriad ways the monthly cycle affects women’s lives.

An alternative method of collecting and disposing of menstrual flow is the menstrual cup. A small, flexible cup made of rubber or silicone, inserted in a woman’s vaginal opening to catch the blood as it flows from the cervix, was developed in the 1940s. Women who use it have reported the following advantages:

milder cramps, or none, even for those who previously had
reduced duration of the period
no smell, stain
no bulk – feels like nothing
no waste
easy to wash
can forget that you are even having your period

This option is currently not available in India. If available, it could contribute to a woman’s sense of freedom and help her overcome inhibitions in participating in a variety of activities that may require her to leave the house for a few hours or longer during her period. Even today, urban as well as rural women are subject to segregation and untouchability during menstruation. The fact of menstruation is used to justify a range of other restrictions that societies impose upon women as well. The cup could also help women combat the sense of shame and impurity and challenge sexism in other contexts as well.

For further background see also “Greeting Aunt Flo” in Manushi No 150,

Update:  Shecup now supplies the menstrual cup in India