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Suman Rao
courtesy of Instagram/@suman_rao_official

Miss India Suman Rao pushes for menstrual health to be taught in schools

TextOlivia Edwardes

She’s beauty and she’s grace, kicking patriarchy in the face

Over the weekend, Suman Rao was crowned Miss India 2019. In her first event post-crowning, the beauty queen vowed to make menstrual cycle education and compostable organic feminine products more available to the whole country. In a society where the conversation around women’s health is silent and shameful, the 23-year-old beauty queen’s speech was a bold step forward in the fight to destigmatize menstruation.

“I am so happy that I am starting my first interaction with such an important cause, menstrual hygiene. As we all know, it is still a taboo that needs to be broken,” she said. “It is not something which we need to worry about. We can speak about it as any other ordinary thing.”

In much of Indian culture, men and women are conditioned to think of menstruation as dirty, something to be dealt with in private, and inappropriate if brought up in conversation. Women and girls are shunned from places of worship, as well as encouraged to skip school and refrain from sports while on their period. A shocking 23% of girls end up dropping out of school when they hit puberty due to the lack of support and public shame if they bleed through their clothes.

“I remember in my school days, we had people coming on board in our school and talking about its importance and awareness. So when I got my first period, I was already knowing what to do. And it was a natural thing. So I think that it should be in all the schools so that all young women already know and they don’t get hyper when they get it. It should be normal thing so awareness is important,” Rao continued in her speech.

Many women don’t even know tampons and pads exist, and of those who do, only 30% can afford them. Most resort to using newspapers, dry leaves and cotton rags, all of which are unhygienic and inconvenient to use.  

"If you were to buy a packet of sanitary napkins today, you have to go to a chemist shop or a medical store, which is manned by men -- male shopkeepers, and there are male bystanders, there are male customers -- and there's this one woman there who's announcing that she wants a packet of pads, implying that she has her period. So the male shopkeeper kind of doesn't even look at her straight,” Suhani Jalota told CNN last year. Jaloto is the co-founder of The Myna Mahila Foundation, one of Megan Markle’s charities of choice, which gives access to sanitary pads in the slums of India.

Suman Rao’s initiative on women’s health is of vital importance. In a pageant system built on male-gaze ideology and even subject to a skintone backlash earlier this month, her message could help to catalyse a hopeful new age of Indian female empowerment.

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