I was 12 and in grade 6 when I first got to know that the word “period” is also used for something other than subject class hours. All the girls talked about it hushed voices and most of us, including myself, didn’t know what the fuss was about. I had asked my mom about it at the time but she just smiled and didn’t say much.
Ten per cent of India’s population is adolescent girls of menstruating age. A review of Indian studies showed that 52 per cent of these 120 million girls do not know how and why periods happen. A survey done by United Nations showed that a third of school going girls do not finish school due to limited or no access to sanitation during periods. An United Nations Development Program study also showed that 60 per cent out of the 355 million menstruating women in India suffered from common reproductive infections due to poor menstrual hygiene.
With periods come nausea, mood swings, and abdominal cramps of which over 66 per cent of these adolescent girls have no knowledge about until they first experience them. Lack of awareness and stigma associated with menstruation not only leaves young girls unprepared to deal with both physical and mental changes in their bodies but also robs them of opportunities in a number of ways.
Over my schooling years the behavior of staying quiet about the monthly shedding of endometrium layer stayed with me. Or so I was taught by my mother, my cousins, my aunts and so many other women in my life at the time.
Years after breaking free of all the period related taboos and furtive actions associated with menstruation, I experienced it again. Not in myself but in the young girls I came across at a Swabhiman center, (a Smile Foundation initiative where adolescent girls are trained in confidence and personality development) in Bangalore.
In a small room in Nandini Layout, Bangalore — gathered 15 adolescent girls for an interaction with me on their day to day lives – their struggles, achievements, dreams and hopes. All these girls lived in the nearby slum and had excelled in their education defying all economic and social odds. So here we all were, a bunch of girls and some women looking forward to some fun and interesting discussions.
After a lively conversation about how these girls were handling everything; braving the social and financial barriers, the discussion veered towards menstruation. Having given sessions on menstruation and hygiene, my colleague Pushpanjali asked them speak about it. A silenced followed by shy whispers filled the room. When I asked the group at large to talk to me about periods, not even a single girl spoke. They all started laughing and giggling among themselves when prompted.
Pushpanjali asked one of the girls, 19 years old Krishnavani, to speak about it. She got so shy that the entire time she kept her eyes down and didn’t speak at all, let alone about periods. For a tall, impressive girl who had displayed immense confidence during the rest of our session, she couldn’t even bring herself to say the word “period”. I asked her if she was so shy to talk to me about it, how did she ask for sanitary pads from shop. Her answer, “I don’t. My mother gets it for me.”
It was not a surprise to get such a response from these girls, just a little disheartening that all these young vibrant girls with glowing faces, bright smiles and shining eyes full of big dreams, were bound by aeons old taboos. These girls were unable to freely talk about periods, which is a natural part of their life cycle.
My day with them wrapped up in high spirits; with conversations about everything – their lives, education, career and ambitions. We all danced to a few Kannada songs (or were they Telugu?), led by a convivial little 10 years old, who took my heart away.
On my way back from there, I realised that as hard as people are working towards empowering women; trying to make them comfortable and proud of themselves and their bodies; aiding them to take initiative to seek their needs and rights; there still is a long way to go to break through this barrier for women built by generations of patriarchy.
Periods are as natural part of a woman’s life as breathing. Every woman has a right to adequate reproductive healthcare. Stigmatisation of menstruation leads to violation of these rights. Presently, only 18% of women in India have access to sanitary hygiene. 66% girls and women have no access to toilets to use during menstruation. Girls and women are even asked to stay in isolation during 5 days of menstruation as 70% of mothers associate menstruation with impurity.
In some cultures, first menstruation is also taken as the sign that the girl has reached child bearing age. This results in the girl suffering due to early pregnancy which is dangerous for both the girl and her child. All these practices and so many others are just blatant violation of rights to sexual and reproductive health of women.
My upbringing as a girl was similar as of most these girls I had met. It’s what I made of myself after I started turning into woman that was different from theirs. I had the means, sources and exposure to people and environment that made me feel free and confident in being a woman; to know that nothing about myself is anything to be ashamed of or shy away from.
To sensitise young girls about periods and related changes in the body is the first step against periods being termed a taboo. We need to talk more, have discussions and encourage one and all to embrace it as a natural part of our lives, only then can we bring change in the mindsets of the people.