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Cricketers in India pad up to push periods out of the shadows

When the Rajasthan Royals walk on to the pitch this September, it will mark more than a long awaited return of Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket.

Emblazoned on the back of their purple jerseys will be the name Niine, making it the first time any Indian sports team has been sponsored by a sanitary towel brand.

The platform it offers is enormous: in 2019, the IPL drew in 462 million viewers. And in a country where discussion of periods is considered taboo, even within homes, and where menstrual stigma is an entrenched cause of gender inequality, the collaboration between a championship cricket team and a sanitary towel company has already caused ripples across India.

It is one of several developments in recent weeks that have pushed discussion of periods into the limelight in India and many are hoping that the newfound visibility will finally see archaic attitudes and fears around menstruation challenged.

The Rajasthan Royals executive chairman, Ranjit Barthakur, said he hoped their sponsorship deal with Niine would “make a real change”.

The announcement came days after the Indian food delivery service Zomato became the centre of a public debate when it declared it was giving female and transgender employees 10 days’ additional period leave.

“There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma attached to applying for a period leave,” Deepinder Goyal, the Zomato CEO, said in a statement sent to staff and posted on its website.

“I know that menstrual cramps are very painful for a lot of women – and we have to support them through it if we want to build a truly collaborative culture at Zomato.”

Last week the prime minister, Narendra Modi, in his televised Independence Day speech, spoke about access to cheap sanitary pads as a vital means for Indian women’s empowerment, the first time any Indian prime minister had made any public acknowledgement of menstruation.

Stigma around periods remains highly prevalent in both the public and private spheres in India. According to Unicef, 71% of young Indian women remain unaware of menstruation until their first cycle and many men remain entirely ignorant of periods until they get married.

Aditi Gupta, founder and creator of Menstrupedia, which produces comic books to teach girls about periods that are now in 10,000 schools, said that while there was still a long way to go, particularly in educating women in rural areas, it was significant that menstruation was entering mainstream conversation in India.

“It’s amazing. When I was growing up, adverts for sanitary towels were not even allowed to be played on television during prime time and when an advert for sanitary towels came on the TV, my family used to change the channel. That’s how taboo it was,” said Gupta, whose company gives women 12 extra days for period leave a year. “So this sponsorship deal, and to hear our prime minister talking about sanitary napkins in his speech last week, shows we are making progress in breaking down those stigmas.”

About 23% of girls in India drop out of school when they reach puberty because of the shame associated with periods and lack of access to sanitary towels. The market research company Nielsen recently found that about 70% of women in the country could not afford sanitary products, meaning around 300 million women use unhygienic alternatives such as newspapers, leaves and cotton rags.

The stigma around menstruation has been proved to entrench India’s gender divides, in particular the low female participation in the workforce, which in 2019 was just 21%, among the lowest in the world (the global average is 47%). In the state of Maharashtra, it was reported that thousands of young women, many working in the fields, had had their wombs surgically removed so they did not have to deal with the difficulty, pain and even financial penalties from their employers as a result of menstruation.

It is not the first time period leave has been proposed in India. In the eastern state of Bihar, female government employees are given two extra days off for period-related pain and last year a female MP proposed a menstrual benefits bill to parliament, seeking two days off every month for every working woman in the country, although it was not passed.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, the social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu who rose to fame after developing a machine to make cheap sanitary pads to distribute in rural villages and who has become a vocal activist around menstrual education for women, said the recent spotlight given to menstruation was important as it was likely to reach both a male and female audience. Muruganantham admitted he had been entirely ignorant of periods until he got married, and even then initially thought they were experienced by his wife every Friday.

“For centuries menstrual awareness has been completely ignored in India. It is even taboo within families to discuss periods,” he said. “There is still a long way to go but if we can get people talking about menstruation and the need for sanitary towels – not just young women but fathers, sons and uncles too – that’s when we will finally stop being afraid of menstruation in India.”

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