By Sophie Keeling:
Knowledge about menstruation is poor in rural India, and during my three-month placement with PRAVAH ICS, I’ve been struck by the lack of education that young girls receive about their bodies. Jakholai, the village in which I’m staying, is a Hindu community and here the minimal information about periods is coupled with ancient rituals – leaving women and girls feeling ashamed of a wonderfully natural process. Within my host family, I’ve experienced some of the practices that are religiously followed by a woman on her period in the village:
1. The disposal – The first indicator that one of the women in the house is now menstruating. A black polyethene bag, left for all to see in the alcove of the toilet window. There’s no way to be discreet about the disposal. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked by our grandmother, via my Indian counterpart, if I had ‘finished yet’ (as though it’s a process that I can hurry along) so that the bag can be swiftly removed from view – and the heat.
2. Mealtime limitations – The nights are getting much cooler in Rajasthan, and we now use an indoor living space to eat in the evening, as opposed to the exposed courtyard. However, this room is also used for daily prayers. Stepping inside the room is a huge no-no for menstruating women, as it is a sacred space with images of the gods.
While on her period a girl/woman is considered to be impure, so worship in the temple or the dedicated prayer room in the home is forbidden. Obviously being forced to avoid this room in the home is problematic when it comes to eating as a family, so if my counterparts or I am enduring our temporary state of ‘uncleanliness’ the three of us will eat together in our bedroom. In this instance, we lock the door behind us. A menstruating girl shouldn’t be serving herself (or others) the vegetables from the pan of communal food or take chapattis directly from the tin. Although it might well be a novelty to be waited on for the first day or two, it soon becomes tiresome to be reliant upon others to pass you food or to pour you a drink. But this tradition is far more than an inconvenience; it also drills into girls from an early age that their period is synonymous with disgrace.
Due to her impurity she cannot step inside the kitchen to prepare food, or touch the communal container of clean drinking water – it is as though a natural function of her body is wrong and filthy. While our host sister-in-law (bhabhi) is on her period, she will take food in her room. For three to five nights her young daughter will witness this practice and will learn to view it as the norm for women: isolation from, and enforced by, her own family.
3. Getting rid of the evidence – My favourite part. I walk through the village, handle of the black bag hanging from my fingertips. I ignore the congregation of men who sit outside the local shop because they know as well as I do, what I’m carrying. I almost feel ashamed. I throw the bag on the side of the road, amongst a heap of general waste, waiting for a cow to riffle through the contents. I’ll walk back home, hoping that the men won’t be there to see that I’ve now dumped my bag. They haven’t moved, so I avoid their gaze, all the while thinking that, in the oppressive patriarchy of this village, if a man experienced periods then it would be perceived as a gift bestowed upon him, and treated as a monthly celebration.
Fortunately, I know what’s happening to me. I can combat my shame, the attack on my dignity, with an understanding of a biological process. But the tragedy here is that the young girls of this village do not know, and they certainly do not understand. This fear of the ‘Unknown’ is something that the PRAVAH team of Indian and UK volunteers are working to combat. We have established weekly ‘My Body My Rights’ sessions with 20-30 adolescent girls from Jakholai, and have called the group ‘Kiran’ – meaning rays of the sun. By providing a space in which girls can talk about issues that are not openly discussed in school or with their families, we hope to empower these young women with the knowledge that they deserve, and have a right to hold, about their own bodies.
Before our recent workshop on menstruation and the 28-day cycle, my Indian counterpart and I decided to practice our material on ‘Bhabhi’. She’s 28 and has three children, yet the diagram of the womb and ovaries that we presented before her – something I believed to be a standard image in a school science textbook – was clearly alien to her. I couldn’t understand how she had been kept in ignorance of a crucial element of reproduction. There is an expectation in these rural communities that women will become wives and mothers, but how is it just that they should experience menstruation and pregnancy, without actually understanding where and why these changes are occurring in their body?
From our discussion with the women of Jakholai, mothers do not explain menstruation to their daughters before it happens, and the information provided by health classes in school is minimal. When they get their first period the girls are simply informed how to use sanitary products and are quietly told that the bleeding occurs in ‘all women’.
One woman joked that her daughter learns most things from the storylines of TV serials. But this hands-off approach can only enhance the fear factor. If adolescent girls aren’t equipped with the necessary information, their first period stirs confusion and an overwhelming feeling of angst. In fact, one of the ‘Kiran’ girls explained that when she started menstruating she believed that she had a disease. For two days she tried to comprehend what was happening to her: she was frightened and embarrassed to approach her grandmother. This experience isn’t uncommon. Of the girls in the group who had begun menstruating, all of them had felt underprepared for the inevitable changes in their bodies.
Beginning our session with the group of 11-16 year old girls, we asked if they had ever seen the womb diagram, the same one previously shown to bhabhi. They all looked perplexed and, unsurprisingly, none of them recognised the image shown – even a biology student.
We carefully explained the functions of the labels ‘womb’, ‘ovaries’ and ‘vagina’, along with the processes that occur during one 28-day cycle, and thus lead to a period. The volunteers soon established that the girls weren’t familiar with the Hindi for vagina (yoni), and they would instead use the euphemism for ‘private parts’. This wasn’t an attempt to avoid the biological term, but simply because they had never before heard of it. It angers me that this should be the case. It is not dirty or provocative to know the basic science of one’s body, and ‘private parts’ suggests that this subject is altogether off limits. The functions of the ‘yoni’ aren’t readily discussed in school or within the home, and this results in a feeling of unnecessary shame when curiosity inevitably creeps into the minds of young women.
At the end of the workshop, we asked the girls to write down one thing that they had learned during the one-hour session. The responses included:
“I learned about menstruation, and I am very happy after knowing it.”
“A period lasts from three to five days.”
“The ovary is the place where eggs are made.”
“Today I heard ‘yoni’ for the first time.”
“There is something called the womb in my body.”
“If the egg isn’t fertilised the woman can’t get pregnant – I enjoyed learning.”
It is our hope that, for the Kiran members who are yet to start menstruating, we have helped to reduce some of the anxiety and confusion that surrounds all girls on their first period. For those girls who have already undergone the changes, they now know more about their bodies, and they have been encouraged to share their experiences with their peers – understanding that they do not have to suffer alone.
The Indian volunteers have explained to me that many young people here do not understand why certain customs exist, but they simply follow what is asked of them by their family and by society because it has always been that way.
Our aim for ‘Kiran’ is not to undermine an ancient culture, but to give young girls the opportunity to question their treatment, challenge their disadvantages, and to broaden their prospects.
We asked the group if they would treat menstruation as a taboo in the same manner as their parents, and they passionately expressed that they would not. They wish to speak openly with their future daughters, in the hope that they will not be frightened by the changes that will happen to their developing bodies. They will teach their children to not be ashamed of a natural process, and they will work to reject the rituals that discriminate against menstruating girls and women: those traditions that currently frustrate and limit the ‘Kiran’ girls in their family homes.
Although our batch of PRAVAH volunteers will leave the village in December, we hope that the ‘Kiran’ sessions will continue as the second group arrives – inspiring girls to take brave steps to challenge the conventions that have been followed for centuries.
The mindset of this community will not change immediately, but it is the right of these young women to speak loudly about their situation. They should not feel ashamed about asking questions – particularly about their bodies – or merely receive a hushed, inadequate response.
Providing a space in which girls can talk freely is crucial for sustainable development here. If even a few courageous young women challenge the practices that limit them in their home, then the positive effects with surely ripple into the next generations of Jakholai.