By Tanya Dhingra:
If I were a marginalised girl living in the slum of Bapu Dham, Chandigarh, at the time of my first period, I would probably be scared and nervous (much like other adolescent girls across the world). I would also have an overwhelming sense of shame regarding my natural female tendencies.
I walked into the shabby and poorly-lit Kitab Ghar (Book House) at Yuvsatta, an NGO in Chandigarh, with a determined mind and a fairly-organised agenda. That day was unlike any other day at the Kitab Ghar, because the little boys with their shy smiles were missing – and instead, there was a huge influx of young, starry-eyed girls of Bapu Dham. I found the usual chitter-chatter of the girls a little more rushed, and as they tried to hide their nervousness in loud whispers, I knew that this was going to be one hell of a day.
I started with a casual ‘warm-up’, elaborating on basic terms like puberty, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), hygiene, etc. I also explained the basic dynamics of the pubertal growth periods of boys and girls. Furthermore, I reiterated the importance of accepting and loving our female bodies, despite some societal pressures and the general envy of young, non-menstruating boys.
Then the girls were randomly assigned a group with a volunteer and started discussing their experiences – and/or a lack, thereof. I picked the girls aged 11 years and above for this hygiene workshop, because a majority of these girls have poor domestic lives. Due to the unfortunate taboo about ‘all things female’, these girls struggle to even question their basic anatomy in front of their own mothers and sisters.
My pre-workshop research had brought Menstrupedia to my knowledge. After watching the video for myself, I knew there couldn’t be a better way of explaining the innate cycle of birth to the girls.
I also found that having two other female volunteers with me brought a sense of belonging to the girls because while we were sharing our own experiences with the girls, they seemed to get more comfortable talking about their own. This came as a huge surprise because it seemed to me that the girls generally had ‘detached’ personalities. In our individual groups, we also urged them to speak about their sisters and how they could help their younger siblings in the future to gain courage and discuss any future queries with them.
Nimita, who was the elder of two sisters who have been regulars at Kitab Ghar all summer, told us that their mother had married at the tender age of nine. Due to this terrifying experience, she didn’t want her little girls to know about any of ‘this’ at all – until they were absolutely determined to gain ‘this’ knowledge, elsewhere. After going through the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their periods, the girls seemed more confident and were ready for an absolutely delightful video by Menstrupedia.
The expressions of utter bamboozlement and chaos on their faces were priceless. I know that they really enjoyed watching the video, as was apparent from the question board we held afterwards. I am always supportive of questions and queries of varying types and magnitudes in my class. Just knowing that even a little hesitation on the behalf of the girls was overcome by the continuous support of their peers (as depicted in the video) made the whole workshop more appreciative of our strong, female bodies and the magic that they hold.
Like many others, the girls pointed out some ‘envious’ differences between them and the young lads they face. However, they also described some prejudices that they are made to face at school for having wombs. Ultimately, the discussion boiled down to how crucial our existential roles are. Going through our menstrual cycles every month is only a tiny reminder of the precious life that we may bring into the world one day, and leave it unchanged forever.
Most of the girls at Kitab Ghar can’t afford to buy sanitary napkins. The other alternative that is most popular amongst them is cloth. Hygiene and general care are absolutely essential – and hence, the girls were taught to use clean and soft cloth every time, to always wash it extensively and dry it in scorching heat after use.
Although I will exercise little or no control over the choices of these girls from now on, I plan to start a campaign for providing sanitary napkins and hygiene kits to girls in private schools and families in nearby areas.
The question and answer session ended with a fun activity, in which the girls were asked to describe an emotion that I acted out very clumsily – a sort of ‘pre- and post-menstrual emotional roller-coaster charade’, I reckon. The girls were also instructed that these emotions are absolutely normal and justified at that time of the month. They were also advised that they shouldn’t shy away from sharing such intimate details with close friends and family members.
The following day, I held a short feedback session with the girls to help address any existing queries or concerns amongst them. To sum up, what they came up with was this: “The hygiene workshop was great. I am not scared – instead, I am happy.” Simran, an avid learner and reader at Kitab Ghar, said, “It helped us a lot. I am very excited because it is my new favourite video.”
The general consensus fell into the categories of “Didi, please buy us the Menstrupedia comics” or to download the video on each and every computer, so that they could watch and re-watch it as per their convenience. The overall atmosphere after the workshop was positive and happy-making – because now the girls know more about themselves, their bodies and can feel more relaxed under their own skins. Furthermore, they now feel confident in sharing the otherwise unfortunately taboo topic of periods. Finally, the girls realised how essential their well-being was to us and to the creators of a transformation-driven organisation like Menstrupedia.
If there is anything that I, as a young adult and aspiring health professional, can take from such an experience, it is the ability to sympathise with and validate the concerns of each and every individual about the intricate relationship with their bodies. After all, a country like India struggles to recognise the needs and wants of nearly every girl-child in India, while also maintaining an unbiased attitude towards them.
The author is a rising sophomore at Temple University, Philadelphia (USA) majoring in Health Information Management with a minor in Sociology of Clinical Health.
The article was first published here. It has been published on Youth Ki Awaaz with the author’s permission.