As the sound of the afternoon prayers begins to fade away, mats are rolled out in the inner room of Rehnuma Library Centre in Mumbra. The echoes of giggles from the room begin to get louder as young girls arrive at its doorstep.
While Zarin preps for asking “comfortable questions”, Khushbu sits in one corner, ready to take down observatory notes. Rehenaz, on the other hand, quickly scans through a pile of sheets that have notes on ‘taboos’, ‘menstrual healthcare’ and ‘myths’ scribbled on them. The young girls are gearing up for their first focus group discussion as a part of the Youth Movement for Active Citizenship (YMAC) fellowship program.
The year-long project, which was initiated in July 2014, has motivated this group of women to undertake research on the existing knowledge and perceptions about menstruation amongst women in Mumbra. At present, they are in the dissemination phase of the project, wherein they are conducting awareness workshops based on their study. Their findings bear testimony to the silences fostered in the neighbourhood with regards to the monthly cycles. According to data collected by them, nearly 50% of the women surveyed were completely unaware of the very existence of menstrual cycles until they first spotted blood stains on their skirts as adolescents. “Some girls thought that they had accidentally cut themselves or ended up with a broken boil,” says Rehenaz. “There were a few others, who actually thought that they had cancer.”
“The women here are very afraid to express their pain and fears. They do not have adequate agency and spaces to do so,” says Zarin, adding, “menstruation, in particular, is considered to be a very contentious subject that is never spoken about.” The group of girls includes students, school drop-outs and employees alike. They decided to question and unearth these silences. Backed by skill-based training, the young cohort channelled their inner researchers to undertake literature review, field research, and evaluate their findings to publish in a bound report, which is now helping them in generating awareness.
Another interesting finding that further reiterates the silences in this suburb includes the number of women using cloth instead of sanitary napkins.
They were afraid or uncomfortable to go to the chemist shop and ask the salesman for a packet of sanitary napkins. “Some of them revealed that they wrote it down on paper chits to show it to the shopkeeper. In certain cases, they would also return home if all the salespersons were men,” says Khushbu. Hence, they decided to work on the subject of taboos and health problems associated with menstruation drawing upon their own individual experiences.
“We are all expected to follow a certain diktat at home when it is that time of the month. We are told to stay away from pickles, potted plants, and not partake in household chores,” rues Rehenaz, a class 12 pass out. “However, most of us were unaware of the logical reasoning behind it. None of us had questioned – or for that matter – even discussed these beliefs,” she adds.
As the clock begins to tick, a large group of girls begin to sit on the rolled out mats. These girls, who are affiliated to the Rehnuma Library Centre, are the chosen respondents for the Focus Group Discussion. “Since we share a rapport with the young girls affiliated with the centre, we felt that it would be easier for us to initiate a conversation with them on a subject that is silenced from everyday life,” says Lubna.
Seated in a semi-circle, the young female respondents are first asked about their understanding of menstruation. While some women feel awkward and continue to remain silent, a few begin to warm up to the discussion. “I get to know that my mother has got her monthly period only when she complains of stomach cramps and doesn’t chant her daily prayer,” says one of the girls seated in the corner. “We don’t really mention it to anyone,” adds another.
In the next few minutes, the decibel levels in the room soar.
“Is it true that the body produces chemicals that can cause pickles to get spoiled?”
“I get my period only once in three months. Is it normal?”
“Is it hygienic to use cloth instead of sanitary napkins?”
The fellows patiently respond to the queries or at least, share their own experiences with the young lot. “Make sure you use only sanitary napkins. Keep yourself well hydrated and eat nutritious food. In case of any irregularities, do visit a gynaecologist,” the young fellows explain from the knowledge that they have gained through the workshops, interviews, and literature they were provided as part of the program.
“Do not blindly follow these myths. Question them, and seek a logical reasoning behind them,” they echo.
The questions and personal experiences tone down the once audible silence in the room. The room, they hope, will soon reflect the world that lies outside its four walls.
Note: This post was originally published here.