By Jagath Asoka –
Albert Einstein was known for his thought experiments, which he used as a tool for understanding physical issues and for teaching his ideas to others. If you are a man, here is a simple thought experiment for you: Imagine, once every lunar month, blood oozing continuously out of your phallus for a week. Would you use a rag to cover and plug your phallus? If you had a choice, would you say, “I would rather have my hair on fire for a week”? Men cannot handle menses.
From menarche to menopause, it is a universal fact that menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is an essential aspect of hygiene for women and adolescent girls. I usually do not watch Hindi movies, but I watched the movie Pad Man, which was based on the short story “The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land” in Twinkle Khanna’s book The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, which was inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social activist from Tamil Nadu who introduced low-cost sanitary pads.
In a country like Sri Lanka, where 45% of the population earn less than two dollars a day, where 54% of the population are female, even though most women and girls have the innate knowledge about reproductive tract infections caused due to personal hygiene during menstruation, they cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. Think of your own mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and aunts who face insurmountable difficulties and challenges at home, schools, and work for seven days every lunar month; in many developing countries, menstruation, associated diseases, and menstrual hygiene management activities are surrounded by shame, silence, and social taboos. In countries like India and Nepal, preparing food, interacting with people, refraining from performing religious rituals, and even drinking milk or taking a shower are some of the restrictions that women face—even today—during menses.
I do not have a dog in this political fight; but when a politician suggested a solution to a common problem faced by Sri Lankan girls and women, the hyenas were laughing, and their ignorance and stupidity are daily displayed on Facebook without shame. I took some action: I deleted these trolls from my Facebook page. Believe it not, some of them are highly educated Sri Lankan women who live and work here in the USA.
A survey of low-income women in a large U.S. city finds that nearly two-thirds could not afford menstrual hygiene products such as tampons or pads. In a recent Saint Louis University study (Missouri, USA) two out of three women were found to have gone without menstrual products at least once during a year, while 21% went without the products on a monthly basis. If we were to conduct a similar study in Sri Lanka—will never happen during your lifetime—what would be the results? Well, imagine, in a country like Sri Lanka, where 45% earn less than two dollars a day, Sri Lankan mothers, daughters, and wives spending three dollars to buy pads and tampons? Here is the reality: Egyptian women used soft papyrus tampons in the 15th century BCE, almost 1500 years before Jesus’ birth. Even in 2019, in developing countries, such as in Sri Lanka, women still use rags! Yeah, we brag about our opulence, sumptuousness, rich abundance, luxurious hotels, super highways, and abundance of iPhones, yet most Sri Lankan girls and women use rags during menses!
Names say a lot about products and attitudes. Women’s health issues and men’s health issues are viewed differently. Viagra, for example, suggests vitality and rhymes with Niagara; do you know why? Before Pfizer came up with the name Viagra, they did a survey. To name Pfizer’s blockbuster, they ran a focus group with urologists who treated erectile dysfunction. At the conclusion of the session, one of the doctors was asked to describe the feeling when the condition went away. The doctor said, “Visualize a strong stream.” Melding the words “vigorous” and “Niagara,” they came up with “Viagra.” it connotes force and endurance; on the other hand, the word tampon is somewhat derogatory, an inelegant term, originated from the medieval French word “tampion,” meaning a piece of cloth to stop a hole, a stamp, plug, or a stopper for the plug. In western countries, an average woman may use approximately 11,400 tampons in her lifetime: if she uses only tampons rather than other products. I guess those who came up with the name tampon did not visualize a blood stream, instead they thought of a piece of cloth to stop a hole. I bet it was a man who came up with the word tampon.
Did you ever imagine menses would be an issue in Presidential Elections, in a country like Sri Lanka, where we proudly say, “Gedhara Budhun Amma“ (Mother is the Buddha at home). The emphasis is on the sanctity of mothers—women—in our country. Yet women and adolescent girls use rags during menses, while on every full moon day we spend millions to build stupas with flowers that wither. Would the Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka say let us use that money to provide free sanitary pads? I wonder what the Buddha would say about these stupid displays of sanctimonious piety of strewing millions of flowers from helicopters.
I used to write about politics before Sirisena was elected, because people were scared to talk about politics, were scared to ask politicians whether they had used white vans to kidnap dissenters and journalists; some of them were tortured, maimed, and killed. I am not a fan of Sirisena, but since he became President, I have not heard that he used white vans to kidnap, killed journalists, and tortured his dissenters. Daily and openly, Sri Lankans ridicule Sirisena, and he has endured humiliation. To me, that is a revolutionary change that was achieved through the ballot, not the bullet; I have realized that Sri Lankas inadvertently promote bribery, corruption, thuggery, and extortion: The four elements of our social DNA. According to Richard Dawkins, memes—an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person—are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes. Bribery, corruption, thuggery, and extortion are not only our memes but also in our genes.
In a week, we will find out the winner. It does not matter whether you are the comrade, commander, messiah, or the savior. I am curious to see how women as a group and minorities—Tamils and Muslims—in Sri Lanka as a group are going to vote.
Sri Lankan society is hierarchical, not collaborative. Instead of encouraging dissent, which is the linchpin, a sine qua non, of a healthy democracy, we demand deference to authority. That is why some Sri Lankans yearn for a benevolent dictator, an oxymoron.
At least, the hullabaloo is about menses, not maiming and killing dissenters and critics. Now, that is something new in politics, even in global politics.