Sanitary napkins form the bed of a bathing pond in India—what personal hygiene is like for rural women

The burden.
The burden.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When people are poor and unable to meet even basic daily necessities, maintaining hygiene becomes a secondary issue.

This situation prevails in most parts of rural India. Survival and basic sustenance hold much deeper value than building bathrooms. The logic is simple: why should I waste my limited resources on building a bathroom when I don’t even have money to make my daily ends meet?

It is strange that although women understand that secure bathing spaces are important not just for maintaining privacy but for the greater goal of cleanliness, they have never talked about it much. This brings us to an important question: What are the opportunity costs of not maintaining personal hygiene? Putting it in simpler terms it means the costs that women have to bear in terms of mental, physical pain and monetary loss when they are exposed to unhygienic conditions.

Evidence from a pilot study

Against this background, a pilot research study was conducted in Chamrabaad village of Bokaro district, Jharkhand, where a small sample of 29 women was interviewed about bathing practices and its consequences on them. The sample was chosen randomly on a voluntary basis. Data thus collected has been classified, analysed, interpreted, and conclusions drawn. The major conclusions emerging from the study are as follows.

Of the total sample, approximately 44.8% have never gone to school, 31% have studied up to Class 10 and only one out of the sample is pursuing her studies after intermediate. More than 95% of the women interviewed took bath on a daily basis and used soap or other cleaning agents, whereas 100% reported that they took bath regularly during their menstrual cycle.

Bathing in closed spaces

Out of 29 women interviewed, only three bathed in closed spaces that were makeshift arrangements with thatched roofs and walls. Around 75% of women took a bath in ponds that were less than 1km away from their houses. It was observed that even in better off households, women visited the ponds for bathing purpose as there was no water available in the spaces created in their homes.

Only a minority group of 6% took a bath near the well but even they did not have a closed space. All the women took a bath wearing clothes.

It was also observed that majority (73%) of the women use cloth during periods. Most of the women, around 72%, clean the cloth where they take bath. It was unfortunate to acquire the information that they wash their used cloth during the menstrual cycle in the same source where they were taking bath.

Only 3.4% reported disposing the napkin safely with other wastes, while 17% said they dumped it in the same pond. “We place the soiled napkin in between the fingers of our legs, and while we dip inside the water to take bath, we release it then and it sinks down to the ground,” a 13-year-old girl said. “If you search the bottom of the lake, you will find the whole bed covered with napkins,” said the mother of a 15-year-old who uses sanitary napkins.

Challenges faced by women in rural India

A middle-aged woman in a village in Jharkhand confessed that she still goes to a nearby pond to bathe, but ensures that her daughter has a secure and private space for bathing. She accepts that her health can’t get any better as she is old now, but her daughter who is young needs to maintain hygiene. The respondent says that when she was young, there were lots of financial constraints. But now things have changed for the better and they can even think of building a closed space near her home only for her daughter.

The second point, which should be made clear, is that having a disease or an infection not only affects a woman physically but also financially. The concept of opportunity costs comes into play again when we see it in terms of daily wages. Women in rural India are mostly engaged in fieldwork. They either work on their own lands or as farm labourers. Either ways, missing a day’s work can mean missing wages, either in cash or kind.

Women are mostly paid in kind, which implies that being absent from work would make them miss on their daily ration of food. As women have time and money as scarce resources, they choose to work and earn their living rather than wasting it all on seeking treatment. They might try to postpone the treatment or tolerate the pain without compromising on their duties as a labourer.

Culture of silence

The third point to remember is the innate trait of women to remain silent. This culture of silence is highly prevalent in rural India. Not only do they not speak up against any medical condition, which they face, they do not even voice their opinion against basic facilities, which are lacking from their life. For example, the need for secured bathing spaces is felt by all the women who either bathe in ponds, rivers or near hand pumps.

However, when asked if they had ever expressed their discomfort to their husbands, most confessed they hardly ever did. For them, bathing was a trivial issue. One woman said, “We can’t take so much time to bathe, we all have work to do and for a two-minute bath we cannot bother our husbands and ask them to build us a bathroom.”

This post first appeared on