Discrimination against menstruating women is widespread in India, where periods have long been taboo and were considered impure.
They are often excluded from social and religious events, denied access to temples and shrines, and even kept out of the kitchen.
On the occasion of World Menstrual Hygiene Day, award-winning photographer Niraj Gera tries to destigmatize periods in this powerful series called Sacred Stains.
Given the lack of talk about periods, a study found that 71% of teenage girls in India are only aware of menstruation when they get it themselves.
Activists say it shows that parents rarely prepare their daughters for something they know will happen. And this unpreparedness leads to so much avoidable fear and fear.
The difficulty in accessing sanitary napkins is another important problem.
India abolished a 12% tax on sanitation products in 2018 after months of campaigning by activists.
Activists had argued that menstrual hygiene products were not a luxury and periods were not a choice that a woman could simply refuse.
However, tax exemption is just a small step towards a much longer road to make menstruation health and hygiene accessible to every woman in the country.
According to a study, only 36% of the 355 million menstruating women in India use sanitary napkins, while the rest use old rags, bowls, ashes, leaves, mud and earth and other life-threatening materials to control their flow.
And menstrual health experts say the current coronavirus crisis has further worsened the situation in India. The country is under a strict block that has severely affected the production and delivery of menstrual hygiene products.
Of course, period poverty does not only affect women in India.
According to Plan International UK, an international development aid agency, one in ten disadvantaged girls under the age of 21 cannot afford hygiene products and uses unsanitary substitutes such as newspapers, toilet paper and socks.
Girls learn to deal with pain and fear from an early age, and we rarely see a girl looking for help when she has physical or mental discomfort due to periods.
But with the increase in social media usage in recent years, women have started to share their stories about menstruation as well.
However, this freedom is often questioned and those who share their stories are threatened with bans, while trolls who indulge in moral policing and shame women get away with it.
“It is time not to silence them out of shame, but to give them the freedom and knowledge to deal with the pain. Social media are a powerful tool and should be used to spread positivity and awareness among people.” , says Gera.
Millions of families across India cannot afford to buy menstrual hygiene products.
In the photo above, a day laborer’s daughter wants a block, says Gera, but feels guilty of even asking her family for the money to buy it.
For them, it’s a mistake between spending family groceries or buying sanitary napkins.
The photographer has launched a petition through his charity Humanify Foundation demanding the free distribution of notepads to all women and girls living below the poverty line in India.
According to a 2014 study by Dasra, a charity that deals with adolescent health issues, nearly 23 million girls drop out of school every year after starting their period.
Activists say the main reasons are a lack of clean toilets in schools and poor access to sanitary products.
There is also fear of stains, and girls worry about being mocked by their classmates.
The study also found that a large number of women saw periods as dirty, which explains why menstruating women are often excluded from social and cultural activities and forced to accept all kinds of restrictions.
“It is time we realized that menstruation is just a biological process and that the secrecy associated with it needs to be removed. It is important to normalize menstruation and break taboos around this natural process,” he says .
“Talking is all it takes to start a transformation and it is time for us to do it.”
All photos are copyright: Niraj Gera