In the spring of 2015, when I was preparing for a social venture challenge and looking for an area which needed a change in my community, taboos against menstruation came naturally to me. Let me clarify: I have received private education and come from a loving family who didn’t care if I visited our mandir at ‘that time of the month’. I wasn’t forced to miss school because of lack of access to products or ousted and secluded from the normality of life. This piece chronicles the start of a seemingly naïve project to my current journey to which I am deeply committed.
First, let’s face it- before the TED talk or mainstream Bollywood exposure, periods had never been a drawing room subject. We’ve whispered about our Whisper pack to chemists and stayed bound with black polythene bags while picking up Stayfree. None of the schools had a sanitary pad vending machine, only few had an infirmary where you could request for a pad (in case of an emergency). My mother, a high school teacher, has carried a full packet in her purse through her career because young girls have perpetual emergencies (read: we are forgetful). Even when I moved on to working in a corporate office, women were sheepishly pinging colleagues on Lync to check if anyone had an extra pad. This has always made me wonder that if toilet paper is a freely provided necessity in washrooms then why aren’t menstrual products? (Hint: Menstruating is as natural as taking a dump, if not more. The only difference is that it doesn’t directly affect men. Do we sense a theme here?)
In middle school, it was easy to become popular and best friends with boys, if you let them in and shared the mystery of periods. It was hush-hush. And then there was the shame. One incident of staining your white PT uniform or leaving a mark on the light coloured bench right before school got over led to the frenzy of forcing your parents to drive you early the next day, so you could clean up before anybody saw it. Hating them, because some kid already got there before you and now the whole batch would discuss this strange red-brown stain on your seat, despite your best attempts at convincing your mates that it’s tomato ketchup that leaked from your tiffin. We’ve all had accidents. We deserved more empathy.
Many of us planned a Goa trip and had the nightmarish realization of ‘Aunt Flo’ graciously accompanying us, which was then followed by a frantic Google search on tampons. Some of us bought them and read the instructions on the back while praying it goes inside the right way. Biology textbooks had an interesting chapter on reproductive health which was more often than not skipped in classrooms or rushed through. We’ve learned what we’ve learned at girl sleepovers or, in cryptic terms, from our mothers who tried to help us the best they could, with what they know.
Fast forward to April 2018 when I collaborated with an incredible NGO working out of the slums of Govandi at their Sponsor A Girl Program. In a room full of young girls accompanied by their mothers, aunts and older sisters I asked – Why do we get our period? The question was followed by silence. Static silence. Watch here.
At first, we thought it’s the shame, so we encouraged them in every way possible to speak up. We soon realized most didn’t know. In a society where reproductive health-related information is often provided by an older female figure, it is scary to think how these generations have grown up without adequate knowledge. “It just happens every month. God ensures it comes,” said the only person who decided to speak on the topic in that room. The stigma associated with periods forces women to hide every aspect of it. Used pads are hidden under the bed, thrown out of windows or flushed down the toilet. Women refuse to wrap it in a newspaper before disposing it off because the sound of tearing would be heard outside. Surveys have revealed that most females in slum areas don’t wear underwear unless they are on their period which exposes them to an array of infections. Access to gynaecologists, awareness about best hygiene practices and nutrition is still poor in most regions.
A lot of great work is being done by several organizations in this space, but my take away from this experience is on a slightly different tangent. It has taught me to check my privilege. When I started working on the project, several NGOs were working on WASH programs and I wanted to bring in a radical change – so what does one do? Why not just talk about other products – sustainable menstruation is the new fad!
Ground realities are starkly different and social impact projects need to be in touch with them. “Yahan peene ko paani nahi hai, dhone ko kahan se layein? (We don’t have access to drinking water, where would we get clean water to wash these products?)” Sustainable menstruation products such as cups need to be rinsed with clean water and soap. Cloth cotton pads need to be washed in cold water and then exposed to direct sunlight so it can be disinfected. Biodegradable pads should be buried under a pre-required depth and need to be compatible with the pH of the soil. Come monsoons in Mumbai and if not disposed of correctly, they will absorb water and rise to the top, floating across burial sites. These are not luxuries the urban poor can afford. I am an advocate for sustainable products, as long as their usage is feasible. They are eco-friendly, cost-effective, meant for long-term use and can be a great option for a lot of us. However, this perception is highly subjective. What is a convenience to you, maybe an impractical reality for someone else.
If there is one message I could share this Menstrual Hygiene Day, it would be the right to informed product choice. Encourage people to talk, hear their stories with empathy, understand their challenges and then educate them about their options. There’s a sudden social (media?) pressure to jump on the sustainable green-bleeders bandwagon. It’s all over the internet. Do not take this as discouragement or complacency. Our uteruses aren’t always our kindest friends and each woman’s period is different. I implore you to take your time to talk openly and figure what works best for you – a biodegradable napkin that you’re convinced you can properly dispose of, a cloth pad, a cup if you’re willing to know your body more intimately or whatever permutation, combination works! Your choices, comfort, and contribution with respect to menstruation – it all matters.
Breathe. You’ve figured out so much, you’ll get through the rest of it too. No pressure.