A group of female college students in India held a protest on Thursday demanding action against officials who subjected them to humiliation to check if they were menstruating.
The 68 students who attend Shree Sahajanand Girls Institute (SSGI) in the city of Bhuj said they were forced to strip and show their underwear to female teachers on Feb 11.
SSGI, located in the western Indian state of Gujarat, is run by the Swaminarayan sect, a wealthy and conservative Hindu religious group that manages lavish temples around the world.
At the hostel where students board, they are asked to register when they get their periods to help officials identify which students are menstruating and should therefore follow certain restrictions, according to the BBC Gujarati.
Students had not registered for the last two months, which prompted the hostel official to report to the school principal that they were not complying with the rules.
“We do respect our institution, but what they did was not right,” one student said, according to the news agency ANI. “Legal action should be taken against them. We decided to call the media to throw light on the matter.”
One parent of a student involved in the incident reported that when he went to visit the college, he found his daughter and other students in tears.
The students were allegedly pulled out of class, abused by a hostel official and school principal, and then taken to the bathroom where they were individually told to undress after a used sanitary napkin was found in a garden. The students claim a hostel official complained to the college principal on Monday, accusing some of the students of breaking rules set for menstruating women.
“When you ask a young girl to take off her underpants, it’s breaking her respect, it’s a complete disgust and insult to women,” Sarika Gupta, founder of the Mumbai-based Safe N’ Happy Periods initiative, told Global Citizen. “Nobody has any right to do that.”
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Menstruation is still considered highly taboo in India, where about 70% of girls and women lack information about their periods. The stigma attached to periods in the country stops people who menstruate from attending school, stepping into places of worship, and even eating certain foods.
While SSGI students are staying at the hostel, they are forbidden from entering the temple or kitchen, and are not allowed to touch other students when they are on their periods. They are also required to sit in isolation during class and meals, sleep in the basement, and clean their own dishes.
“News of this occurring is devastating and shows how far we still have to go to reach menstrual equity,” Celeste Mergens, the founder and CEO of the international menstrual health organization Days for Girls, told Global Citizen.
SSGI college trustee Pravin Pindoria called the incident “unfortunate,” and said action would be taken against anyone found guilty. The Gujarat State Women's Commission ordered an investigation on Friday and asked the students to come forward. The police have also lodged a complaint.
But Darshana Dholakia, the dean of students, is placing full blame on the hostel. She said the students broke the rules and some apologized.
“Everything happened with the girls’ permission,” Dholakia told ANI. “Nobody was forced for it. Nobody touched them. Still, an inquiry team has been formed to look into the matter.”
Some of the students told the BBC that school authorities are pressuring them to underplay the incident and stay quiet.
The silence around menstruation in India is due to a lack of education, according to Gupta.
“So many girls I come across really feel something has seriously gone wrong in their lives ever since they started menstruating,” Gupta said. “Until we are able to hammer self-respect and the respect around periods into parents, teachers, men, I don’t think things will change.”