By Meghan Norean:
One day, back in grade VI, I arrived in the classroom to find that all the boys had disappeared. Was it that evolution had finally decided that females were the superior sex and rid the earth of all males? No, it was just time for us to learn about menstruation.
I don’t remember much about that class, but what I do remember is feeling shame. I wondered why they were afraid to have the boys in the same room. Why had I never heard the word ‘menstruation’ before? Why hadn’t anyone in my family told me about it? I felt ashamed of my period even before I had it. When the day finally came, and I saw that red stain on my underwear, I knew exactly what I had to do – not tell anyone.
My mother caught on soon enough, given that her tampon stash was slowly dwindling. But, in keeping with the tradition of limiting menstruation to its shameful place of secrecy, she bought enough for both of us and didn’t say a word to anyone about it. We both just carried on ‘normally’, as though we didn’t bleed for five days every month.
It wasn’t until seven years later that I discovered a more liberating way of dealing with my period – by using a little white silicone cup. My menstrual cup was my constant, comforting companion for many years. I raved about it to all my friends (and successfully got most of them to use it too!). I couldn’t believe I had wasted seven years using tampons and now they were all just sitting in a landfill.
It was when I moved to India in 2010 that I learned to truly appreciate the value of the menstrual cup. I was shocked at the amount of trash I saw every day and even more so when I realised that this trash was largely made up of used disposable pads – lying on train tracks, in the lakes, in the corner of public bathrooms. Ironically, though, the subject itself seemed a taboo here too.
I still remember my first encounter with the strange culture surrounding menstruation and menstruating women in India. I was in a village for a friend’s wedding, and a few of us had stopped at the medicine shop to buy sanitary pads. The man behind the counter grabbed a pack of pads and shoved them into a black plastic bag as quickly as he could, as if he was smuggling something illegal.
What surprised me, even more, was that at the pre-wedding puja, the friend who was menstruating was nowhere to be seen. When I found out that women on their periods could not be part of religious ceremonies in India; it struck me as odd that I could participate in the festivities simply because I was lucky enough not to be bleeding that day.
It was almost as if the society was trying to erase the fact that menstruation exists. This culture of silence, of period shaming and filling the earth with trash was extremely frustrating, to say the least. I knew I had to do something about it, but what?
I began to research menstrual practices in India and found that girls were dropping out or missing school because of their period. How could it be that something out of our control, so natural, was hindering so many girls’ education?
So, I took my menstrual cup around to some of the girls in my community and asked them if they would ever use it. As soon as I took the cup out of its pouch, their eyes widened, and their jaws dropped.
“You want me to put that – where?!”, they asked horrified.
Disappointed, but not disheartened, I returned to my research and found out about reusable cloth pads. I sewed some out of spare fabric I had and took my homemade pads to those girls again. They were willing to try it and share it.
Slowly things were coming together. Many women in my community knew how to sew, but were getting paid very little for their work. I began to dream of a place where women from the ‘basti’ (slum) would get fair wages to sew cloth pads. These cloth pads would be sold, and all profits would help fund menstrual education programs around India.
These programs, in turn, would help facilitate the ending of the silence around menstruation and the period shaming. At the same time, the earth would be relieved of millions of disposable pads that otherwise would be destined to sit in landfills. Overall, I hoped to better the environment, the community, and women’s education in one go.
That dream became a reality at the beginning of 2015, with the launch of Shomota, which means ‘equality’ in Bengali. A social enterprise that aims at boosting gender equality in the Indian education system and propelling overall women’s empowerment. Shomota also aims to positively impact the environment and eradicate taboos around menstruation.
Born out of a desire to stop period shaming and ensuring every girl and woman knows that her body is valued just the way it is, Shomota operates in India through its website and welcomes your solidarity. If you’d like to express your support, help spread the word and purchase Shomota’s products to promote an empowering, cleaner and greener way of dealing with menstruation.
About the author: Meghan Norean is the co-founder of Shomota Women Care Pvt. Ltd. based out of Kolkata, India.