Betel field on a rainy day

Photo by Keerthi V / Unsplash

Beating period stigma with betel vines

In the coastal villages of Odisha, in eastern India, women do not work on betel vineyards due to an age-old menstruation taboo. But some women are rebelling. What does it take to fight against the society?

One hot afternoon in April 2022, Kavita Dei sat outside her home wading through two big heaps of heart-shaped emerald betel leaves. She was with her husband Duryodhana, who pulled out exactly 50 lustrous leaves from a pile and tied them together into small bundles. On a usual day, it would have been a quiet setting—except maybe the birdsong from Khair trees—but this was two days ahead of Pana Sakranti festival, the heralding of a new year in Odisha. The whole village of Guapur, in the eastern Indian state, was reverberating with the sound of brass plates. A religious procession of around five men, some of them dressed in red, went around the village, banging the plates and blessing the residents in each household.

Kavita and I were only two minutes into the conversation but I knew two important things about her: her family had been growing betel leaves for the last five decades; and she was not on her period.

The 40-year-old has worked on farms since her childhood. She has grown rice, eggplants, tomatoes, and beans—but she wouldn’t dare touch a betel leaf or even enter a vineyard when she is menstruating. She doesn’t exactly know how the custom came into being but she must have learnt it from her mother and inevitably passed it along to her daughter. “Yes, definitely,” Duryodhana said when I asked if their daughter would also follow the custom, as he put down a cluster on the floor.

Betel vines are no ordinary leaves, by the way. These glossy venous leaves are a lifeline for the couple and thousands of other families in many other villages of the coastal state, flanked by the Bay of Bengal. Every week, traders from neighbouring cities and far away places arrive at the village haat (local market), where Duryodhana and other men put their produce on display, hoping to make around 1,000 rupees per 2,000 leaves.

“Sometimes, it’s 1,000 rupees, sometimes it’s 2,000 and sometimes it’s just 500 rupees,” Duryodhana said. “And during monsoons, it can even plunge to 100 rupees.”

“Nobody needs betel leaves during rains,” Kavita said with resentment.

According to a report in the Asia Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 15-20 million people in India consume betel leaves, also known as paan. And Odisha is one of the largest producers with billions of leaves grown on 2,046 hectares of land.

Mostly, people use paan as a post-meal snack. Chewing the juicy leaves, stuffed with powdered areca nuts, dried rose petals, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, and sometimes tobacco, has been a tradition traced back to ancient India. In fact, so much is paan’s influence on pop culture that it makes frequent appearances in some of the most popular Bollywood songs. But that’s not all. Many Hindus also use them at religious events and weddings as an offering to gods. In a way, the leaves are sacred. But to millions of farmers who grow them, they are even more sacred, with no permissible room for errors.

But women menstruate. And they are “impure”, at least during their periods, as per the local customs that say that if a woman comes in contact with the vines, it could lead to the crop catching pests or diseases. And the families cannot afford it. So while on all other days, Kavita Dei prepares the vineyard bed, waters the tender vines, carefully ties the creepers to a stick and harvests the leaves, in the week she menstruates, her husband inevitably takes on the job.

Dr Sabita Mishra, an agricultural scientist who works in gender issues embedded in farming practices in Odisha, says that women doing betel vine farming is in fact a recent practice. Earlier they were not even allowed to enter the vineyards. “They were never allowed inside. It’s only over the last decade that some people have reduced the restriction period. And yet, that covers only 10-20% of the population,” she said during a phone conversation.

Shanti Bhoi, who lives in Dhanahara village of Odisha, said that the rules were so stringent that they were not even allowed to hand over water to the men working in the vineyards. “It was troublesome. And we used to have fights,” the 60-year-old recalled.

But Mishra explained that the restriction’s impact was much deeper. Being a sophisticated crop, betel vines require regular activity and daily maintenance. “So the male member of the family hires another male member to get help on the farms, and thus the production cost goes up.” And the times when he falls sick and doesn’t have the money to hire someone else, the crop risks getting destroyed.

Besides, it takes away regular employment opportunities from women. “Women work on paddy farms, a major crop here, but [due to the nature of the seasonal crop] they only get three-four months of employment a year,” Mishra said. Betel farming can give regular work but since they are not allowed to work on betel vineyards, not only do women remain unemployed for most part of the year, they also lose job opportunities working on other people’s farms.

“We are able to eat only because of these leaves. Our world depends on them. They are our livelihood,” Duryodhana said. “This is why we forbid menstruating women to go to the vineyards.”

Kavita agreed. “I trust the wisdom of our elders. If they have asked us to not work in the vineyards, it must be right. We fully believe in it. Those who don’t would suffer losses,” she said as the sound of brass plates grew louder.

“Do you go to other farms while you are on your periods?” I asked Kavita.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

“Why is that so?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It’s just a belief,” she replied.

I turned to Duryodhana: “How would you feel if your wife ever wanted to go to the vineyards on her periods?”

“No! No! No!” he said.


A narrow path lined by mango, bamboo, and Indian bael (golden apple) trees, along with a couple of snake plants lead to the Radio Kissan studio. The space isn’t too big—a rented three-room set-up at the back of a house around three kilometers from Guapur, and 50 km from the Bay of Bengal—but it is home to a community radio that reaches people in over 200 villages.

Pradipta Kumar Dutta says he started the radio, whose title translates into “Radio Farmer”, in 2011 following his passion in agriculture and development. It’s where he was born—although he now lives in the state capital Bhubaneswar—so naturally this was his first preference for the set-up. “People who work for a community radio, those who run the programmes and create content, should have [a close connection] with the community,” he said. “This is the essence of a community radio.”

In 2015, Dutta and his team ran a series of 26 episodes titled Ei Ama Adhikar (“This is my right”) in local Odiya language, addressing a bunch of restrictions women face in the neighbouring villages. The main purpose of the series, Dutta said, was to encourage women to join the workforce.

“Due to many social stigmas, women are kept away from the workplace. They can’t travel as they have to take care of the children and domestic animals. They also don’t know how to cycle or bike and thus need the support of male family members,” he said, as we sat in his office one afternoon facing a big patch of fallow land, along with his colleague Sujata Bhoi, who on some days single-handedly manages the entire operation at the office. “This gender gap is a constraint for the progress of our society,” Dutta added.

Betelvine farming, he felt, was an activity that could resolve the problem. “Betelvine is a very profitable cash crop for the community. It provides employment all year round. 70-75% people in [the neighbouring] villages would have betel vines but women are denied entry there because of the social stigma. And stigma can only be replaced by strong scientific messaging,” he said.

So his small team, which has currently five members, with some support from Ideosync Media Combine, a media company in New Delhi, and dozens of volunteers from the community, did a baseline survey in the region to identify the problem and dedicated some of the episodes to addressing the restrictions that Kavita Dei and other women have always faced. They spoke with agricultural scientists and gender experts like Sabita Mishra who explained on the show that women have nothing to do with the crop catching pests or disease.

They combined these messages with folk music. The title song of the series loosely translates into English like this:

We will grow, we will build
We will build our heaven for us
There should be no discrimination between men and women
This is our right
Our work, our right
The subject is woman
The voice is also woman
The work of woman, and the earning of woman
This is the voice of development
Ei Ama Adhikar

Dutta sang along, as we listened to an episode, sitting in the studio with strikingly bright green walls, while Sujata handled the console. He said he wrote the lyrics himself, while local singers from the community contributed their voices. “We only used local instruments. No modern instruments were used,” he said with a sense of pride.

Additionally, the team held physical events with the community where they addressed the problem more specifically and encouraged the women to break the taboo and start farming. Dutta claims that the series succeeded in persuading many women in the area to take up betel vine farming, for which he also won an award by the India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 2016.

The women agreed—to an extent.


Ask any resident of Guapur how valuable a betel vineyard is to them and they are likely going to tell you it’s as sacred as a temple. Hence, we took off our shoes before entering a vineyard where Chagali Bhoi, Sujata’s mother, was at work under the hot sun. It was an enclosed space, a little elevated above the ground, with several rows of the creepers tied to wooden sticks. Bhoi was bent over a cluster, carefully separating the coiled vines, and checking the waxy green leaves for any mites and bugs. She then picked up a yellow-colored plastic tube and started watering the plants.

She was on her period, by the way.

“I don’t believe in these customs,” she said through her 25-year-old daughter who translated for us. “If I don’t come here, who will work? Who will earn for us if I don’t do it? There’s no one else behind me.”

Chagali Bhoi waters betel vines in her vineyards, while on her period (Image: Sanna Irshad Mattoo).

It’s been 15 years since Bhoi’s husband abandoned her and their kids to elope with another woman, and 15 years since she took full responsibility of the vineyard and rebelled against the custom. I was in awe.

“How does it feel?” I asked.

“I feel what I am doing is right. If someone else feels otherwise, I couldn’t care less,” she said calmly. “Because if I did, I won’t be able to work.”

Sujata explained that there isn’t a lot of business that takes place in the village, except agriculture, thus limiting the livelihood options for her mother. Most of the produce other than betel vines, like rice, is used for personal consumption.

Moreover, the over 450km long coastline of Odisha exposes it to several cyclones, storms, and floods every year, that routinely disrupt the life of several hundred thousands of people. In 2021, Cyclone Storm Jawad severely damaged crops on 578,000 hectares of land. A few years ago, floods ravaged Chagali Bhoi’s vineyard too but she rebuilt it at the current location and started working again.

She is aware of people, including her own family members, talking behind her back for going against the custom but she said she needs to bring up her children and for that, she needs money.

Gani Behra, who grows paddy and betel vines in the same village, has a similar opinion. It was actually her husband’s diabetes and inability to work full-time that first drove her to fight the taboo but now she doesn’t feel the need to ask for anyone’s approval.

“Why should we ask for anyone’s opinion?” she said. “In old times, people used to say that women’s immunity goes down when they menstruate and their touch could destroy the vines. But times have changed. Whether it’s a man or a woman, they need each other’s support in the vineyards.”

The procession was next door now. One of the men placed a figure of a local deity, wrapped in black clothes on the ground as the residents bowed down before her to seek blessings.

“Did you listen to the Radio Kissan programme?” I asked after they left.

“I can’t remember. We live far away from where they held the event,” she said.

According to Sujata, women like Behra and her own mother didn’t have much of an option but to rebel. “Those who live with parents-in-law are often forced to follow the custom because they impose it on them,” she said as we walked past vast swathes of paddy fields to meet women on the other end of the village.

Sujata Mallick was one of them, who also attended the Radio Kissan event. She said she tried to resist but her parents-in-law didn’t allow her to work. “It is wrong, I know,” she said of the taboo as we sat by a pond that looked almost entirely jade from the algae. “We should go to the vineyards but we have to respect our elders.”

Her neighbour Paravati Mallick cannot exactly decide how to feel about the restriction but she said she liked the radio programme and events. “My father-in-law is gone but my mother-in-law is still alive. She believes in the custom,” she said.

All other women in the neighbourhood who had gathered by the pond shared similar circumstances. I requested to speak with an elderly person and two of the women rushed to get someone, leaving me with a few kids and their pet, a small Asian mongoose named Lauki. They had locked the brown, slender creature, mostly used to ward off snakes in some rural areas, inside a wooden box from where it kept knocking and scratching at the door in a desperate attempt to get out.

“Can we let Lauki out?” I said to the kids.  They agreed.

Like most other villagers, the septuagenarian Shankar Mallick believes that women should follow the custom and he won’t be too comfortable if his two daughters-in-law rebelled against it. “The thing is that this is a golden crop,” he said. “Betel vines are as valuable to us as gold. We cannot afford any kind of losses.”

A woman busy with household chores in Guapur village of Odisha, India (Image: Sanna Irshad Mattoo).

He doesn’t remember if the crop was ever affected by pests but acknowledges that times are changing. “I leave it to the younger generations to decide whether they want to follow the custom or not,” he said at last.

For most women, evidently, it’s a fierce battle with the family, neighbours, and the fears of their own.

But none of that perturbs Savita Bhoi somehow. The 36-year-old, who lives with her husband and his family in the same village, has zero fears about any of the above-mentioned things.

Pests? “Never had any.” Parents-in-law? “Who cares!”

She sat with a group of women under a wooden shed while two of them slashed a watermelon with a huge blade, letting out the succulent red slices that they passed along to everyone. “My mother-in-law fights with me all the time. But she can only put restrictions. I am the one responsible for chores,” she said in a nonchalant, poised way that often comes to those who are doing something groundbreaking. Her husband works as a labourer and thus needs to leave home early in the morning, which means a large chunk of farming, livestock and domestic work falls into her share.

She doesn’t remember if she listened to the Radio Kissan programme but her mother-in-law attended one of the events. “She told me all that she heard at the event. She didn’t like it but I loved everything,” she said grinning.

But Promila Dei, another resident of Guapur, seemed to remember everything about the programme, down to the little details—it took place near a temple, where they sat on a rug and listened to the experts who brought along some banners. The 50-year-old was splayed out on a wooden bench, as we spoke, recalling threats, scolding and fights she got from her family for trying to work in the vineyards. But she understands people’s reluctance to cast aside the custom.

“When you ask a kid to not do something, do they agree immediately?” she said. “We liked what they said at the programme but there are some rules and they are there for a reason. Unless you practically experience that women not being able to work at the vineyards would bring more losses, you would never agree to fight the taboo.” In other words, it takes time, she said, and left to join the Panna Sakranti celebrations, to bring in the new year.


When I asked Chagali Bhoi about where she sold her produce, she said her brother-in-law did it for her. He sorts, packages, and drives the leaves—that she grows, nurtures and harvests every day—to the village haat and sells them off to merchants.

“Why not you?” I said. She stayed silent.

Sujata then explained that a lack of transport facilities for women was one of the major reasons. “Besides what will people say?” she said. Moreover, the markets do not have proper washrooms for women. 

So one evening after my meeting with the women, I stood in the middle of a village haat, talking to men sitting on the floor selling beans, bottle guards, cucumbers and lemons; areca nuts, almonds, tobacco, and the holy heart-shaped emerald leaves.

I looked around in all directions, crisscrossed the entire market, vibrant with fresh produce and only found men chatting with men about the produce women had also grown.

“Women rarely come here,” a seller said.

Promila Mahala who was there to get some groceries agreed. “I came here today because my husband is travelling,” she said, lugging a white-coloured bag.

The only other woman, after Mahala left, in the market was Renu. She arrived carrying a bunch of freshly picked Indian baels that she grew in her backyard, and sat in a corner of the haat. She smiled as she spoke. “My son sells almonds here, and I brought these baels too,” she said. She was further telling me about the time she had spent in the Indian capital New Delhi but her son came over and asked me to leave. He had an aggressive tone and indicated that I was not allowed to speak with his mother, who was now silent, and her smile vanished.

Fearing for her and my own safety, I left the market. So did she.


This story was supported by the One World Media as part of a fellowship.