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Why Is Menstruation A Woman’s ‘Worst Kept Secret’?

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Submitted Anonymously:

Menstruation was a very confusing experience for me when I was growing up. The reason I term it ‘confusing’ is because just after my menarche, my mother had an open discussion with me about it. She sat me down and responded to my queries patiently. Her affectionate and caring attitude had sort of equipped me, from a very young age, to deal with any anatomical issues I could face later in life. She reassured that everything was under control and that menstruation itself was a part of growing up. In fact, it could even be seen as a very empowering phenomenon in a woman’s life! However, the overall atmosphere in my family was that of shame, since menstruation was regarded a ‘taboo’ topic, never to be talked about. My grandmother used to try to separate my sister and me from the rest of the household when we were on our periods. Sometimes, a lot of these rules made sense, while on other occasions they just seemed silly, annoying and extremely confusing.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

For example, washing our hair for the first two days of the menstruation cycle was frowned upon, but we were also asked to take extra care about our grooming and sanitation. There was also strict control over the mobility and overall behaviour of the two sisters during ‘that time of the month’. Then came many food related restrictions which made no sense at all! We were supposed to avoid sour or spicy food and never touch pickles. Not just that, we were also discouraged from entering the kitchen and the house temple. When asked the reason behind this, we were heavily reprimanded for apparently disrespecting elders in the house.

All that these restrictions did was creating resentment in us, towards our own bodily processes, as well as what seemed like unnecessary regulations on women’s bodies.

The overall silence in the society around these menstruation myths made matters worse. Menstruation itself is regarded as a ‘dirty’ event in a woman’s life and becomes the ‘worst kept secret’. I distinctly remember one particular incident during my teenage years – our school had organised a ‘health class’ talk for the seventh standard girls (which happened to be my class). We were asked to go to the auditorium and were shown a video on how to ‘manage’ our periods with the use of sanitary napkins and information on pain relief medicines. I, however, was actually more interested in the Q and A round that would eventually follow the video. In fact, I ended up asking quite a lot of questions to the doctor who was conducting the talk. The queries ranged from basic anatomy to common menstruation related myths I had encountered in my family. Interestingly, the doctor seemed to answer the anatomy related questions in a very scientific and objective manner, but was very hesitant in addressing the myths. She kept pointing out that she is not qualified enough to respond to socio cultural practices relating to menstruation! Hugely disappointed by the session, I then turned to medical encyclopaedias in the school library and the internet. Again, they all seemed to talk about the scientific aspect of it all but I could not find proper sections dedicated to the myth busting that I was looking for. The results of my efforts to look for accurate information frustrated me deeply.

Now when I think back, it is interesting to see how these myths affected popular culture. As I was growing up, the advertisements on television were always about selling ‘hygiene’ products. Even the sanitary napkin advertisements inevitably use blue ink for illustrative purposes, which sort of signifies people’s hesitation with menstrual blood, which is seen as ‘dirty and impure’.

I somehow knew that these myths create an environment where misinformation and an unsympathetic attitude towards women’s bodies is encouraged. Superstitions that are not just physically taxing but also create a lot of confusion, fear and anxiety for many who do not have proper resources to turn to from an early age. And this only refers to the experience of cisgender women (refers to people who, for the most part, identify as the gender they were assigned at birth; for instance, in this case, a person who was born with female genitalia and also identifies as a woman). It is even harder to imagine what teenagers, who identify as transgender, go through because there is a lack of sensitivity around the unique issues faced by them.

Nowadays, we find a lot of media engagement that is targeting such myths head on and hence, can be empowering for young women. For example, the ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign by a well-known sanitary napkin brand. This needs to be applauded. But it would be much better if instead of one or two disjointed efforts here and there, something as concrete as a uniform sexuality education curriculum in schools could address these issues in a systematic manner. A concerted effort needs to be taken, such that sexuality education given in schools should provide accurate and scientific details about the menstruation phenomenon, among other issues related to sexuality, along with debunking harmful myths that restrict young girls and women.

Do you think there is lack of information among young women and men about puberty and menstruation? Do you remember any such instances/experiences from your life when you dealt with something similar? Do share in the comment box below.

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  1. Sambit

    This is such an irony. The writer has written about something of a topic that needs to be talked about and it is all about speaking up and no shying away whole the author herself is anonymous. What the whole point of the ranting when the author can’t even reveal herself?

    1. Fem

      Sambit,

      It may be because the writer wants to be an anonymous writer. Not because she is shying from the subject of periods. Some people like to write anonymously so as to not get their personal self associated with their opinions on a public platform which is open to all kinds of slander. Just a choice really. The same way I choose to go with a pseudo name so that I am free to express my opinions without attracting attention to my real self.

  2. Nitin Chauhan

    http://www.quora.com/Why-is-a-menstruating-woman-considered-unholy-in-a-few-Indian-households

    Go through this. You may find questions to some answers. And as to why menstrual blood is considered unholy…, it’s just lame, stupid, unthinking ignorance of innocent Indian folks.

  3. anku

    Well I don’t know about it being kept a big secret. This is always been a topic of discussion from time ever, and now more with the means of sources that is available.

    I remember my granma telling how difficult her mother’s time was. Looks like her mother had to go to the river for their water requirement. Also as it was a joint family and there used to be many members living in very small quarters. Later when toilets were introduced it was the manual kind and quite far away from the living quarters, for hygiene purpose.

    Keeping in mind many more such factors certain norms were followed at those times.

    One used to have a head bath during these days to help cool the body. It is a known fact that when the menstrual cycle is about to start the women’s body gets highly heated in order for the cycle to commence. During this period the body is very delicate and undergoes certain changes and certain food patterns are advised.

    As already mentioned in the earlier para certain norms were followed and from my point a little rest was provided . This later became ‘people should not touch’ etc so as to respect the rest period and certain inconveniences that go along with it. But then when people started following it as a ritual,only then all the melodrama began.

    Now everything is different . We use napkins, bathrooms are with flush facility, water is available when we open the tap etc. Now hygiene is the go word. But what I realize, certain norms, especially from health point is being neglected, mainly the working women. It is better to attend to the basic needs during the cycle period in order to avoid complications during pregnancy and menopause periods.

  4. Rajib Aditya

    I’m surprised the author is not credited. Menstruation should be celebrated. It is this regeneration of the womb that makes the continuance of human life possible. It is the root of “Matri”/”Mater”/Matrix. It is the basis of life. If authors who claim to talk on behalf of women refrain from going all out, declaring their identities and joining this celebration, we will continue to look upon the biological phenomena with double standards.

    1. bulesha

      “Menstruation should be celebrated” The only pace I came across where it is being celebrated is Assam, they invite guest/relatives and celebrate “choti shadi”.

  5. Liz

    I was raised Catholic. During Sunday school, our teacher (a older matriarch of the congregation.) Lost no time in informing myself, and the rest of the second grade class, that women suffered the pain of childbirth and “menstrual suffering”, due to Eve’s sins in the garden.
    I was clear then, that although we had all been baptized. If you were female, holy water would never cleanse all of the “Original sin.”
    This arcane view was passed on to me in 1991.

  6. nivedita jha

    My opinion about this is something diffrent. I feel today each girl has a knowledge about menstruation. But menstruation has always been taken as untouchable girl in the society.. my first learned experience taught me when your days are going on yoy cannot worship god…. you cannot wash your hair… dont talk about it much… stop it things like pickle.. I was amazed knowing and I was always perplexed why cant I worship god… didnt maa durga had it? And if not then from where has this custom started… how did the logic of not worshipping , and behaving like a untouchable concept emerged… this is so shocking to know… those who put us restrictions themselves dont know answer for this..in todays era.. girls are shy … because accepting the hormonal change is not dearlyaccepted… the feeling of uncomfortability and so many restrictions at home make it a matter of issue… so the girl automatically feels shy and uncomfortable..she thinks she has grown up… and there are so many cooked up stories in market which a girl at the age of 12 thinks to be real… and then a never ending cases of molestation comes with it.. there are such embarassing moments at time when a girl wearing a beautiful white colour dress has a stain mark on it… but I have a voice for all girls… that you are born to be courageous and accept al terms and fight on it… be proud to be a girls as the very matter of luckiness of having menstruation is this that we are grown to fight like a tigress now… and before that we were baby cub… dont shy on it as people would claim menstruation as grown up mature but I think those getting menstruation are now ready to flee from cage and fly like a piegon..

  7. gnandan12

    I suppose what we need to do is to demystify the whole concept of menstruation. That can be done in colleges by posting scientific information about this taboo on college walls. I am sure so many educated women and men consider this anatomical process unholy and a topic not-to-talk-about.

    Can we, who don’t consider it a taboo, post explicit information about it in college premises in order to educate the students?

  8. Mahi Sharma

    Women is the God’s finest and most beautiful creation without whom no creation is possible. In early days women got separated from their daily routine just for the sake of her health. She needed some rest that is why they asked her to stay away from all household works. She stopped worship God because that need positive attitude and vibes for worshipping and women must had mood swings(we all knows) which make her more uncomfortable People gave it a bad name. How can a girl be impure? She is same girl whom people worshipped on nav ratri. Woman’s womb is the most sacred and safe place for any child as we all know. But when she bleed from the same womb, she got impured? Seriously? That is a new phase of a woman’s life, she is transforming into womanhood slowly. This must be a divine but most people think sh..e is impure.. Disgusting and pathetic seriously

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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