Though India may enjoy its status as a fast developing nation at a global stage, even today most of us feel instant pangs of ‘awkwardness’ when sanitary napkins or condoms are advertised while we are watching television with our family members. While we still prefer to either not talk about sex at all or at the most speak about it in ‘hushed’ voices; the levels of awareness related to issues like sexual health and hygiene could be easily guessed. The importance of sexual health as integral to a person’s resilience to enjoy a happy and satisfied life is highly underestimated. Most of the people are unaware about the basics to maintain their sexual hygiene.
Even today a lot of myths regarding sexuality, menstruation, masturbation, and pregnancy are prevalent and widely believed in our culture. Nobody bothers to question these myths and practices because over the centuries they have been deeply embedded in our cultural psyche. Any attempt to rationalize is considered as a major ‘violation of sentiments’. However, the need to talk about sexual health issues. This becomes even more pressing when we must confront the consequences of not talking. These include the increasing rates of teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, abrupt and unsafe sexual behaviours, or relying on mediums like pornography for sexual knowledge.
As they say, half-knowledge is worse than ignorance. It is high time that ‘sexual health’ is freed from the veil of taboo and brought up into open fora for dialogue and discussions. With these thoughts in mind, I decided to begin my journey of being a sexual health and hygiene facilitator two years ago. The opportunity to view other women and my own self in a fresh and non-judgmental perspective was enthralling. Through this journey I initiated the first few steps on the road to discovery and understanding of my own womanhood.
During the summer of 2016, my PhD Supervisor Dr. Preeti Kapur gave me an opportunity to work with her in an NGO, where we took up several short projects pertaining to sexual health, teachers’ training, counseling and inclusive classrooms (which happens to be my PhD interest area). It involved conducting interactive workshops with female students, teachers as well as community workers of one of the remedial schools being run by that NGO. All of this helped me to evolve both as a woman and as an educator
To my mind, menstrual health and hygiene was still a taboo topic in our society and while we spent our initial days in creating age- and gender-specific workshop modules, the challenge of emerging from my comfort zone somehow concerned me. I remember an instance from our first session with community workers where my role was more of an observer. Since I was a novice, Dr. Kapur conducted most parts of the session. She was seamless in her efforts and didn’t shy a bit to vocalize her thoughts in their local vernacular. Being an observer of her vigour and a witness of the immense energy and enthusiasm displayed by the women participants during that session, I experienced a paradigm shift in my thought process.
I realized that our efforts can be immensely impactful by adding power and value in the lives of the women. Eventually, it became much more than a mere project for me as I found myself being extremely associated and committed to the cause.
As I started taking individual sessions with young girls from Class VI onwards, I recognized that most of them did not even know about menstruation. Many were hesitant to even ask questions that they have repressed in their minds for years, fearing shame and humiliation. With young girls, the earliest challenge was to make them feel positive about their bodies, and the processes related with it. I attempted to disassociate the notion of embarrassment and humiliation with menstruation.
Amidst the sessions with young girls, I often wondered why their teachers didn’t enable them with appropriate knowledge pertaining to all the physical and emotional changes related to puberty and menstruation. To my disbelief, when we conducted sessions with the female teachers, I realized that many of them lacked knowledge relating to even the basic anatomy of the female reproductive system. Most of them, with half-baked knowledge, believed in myths that were being perpetuated from generation to generation. Approximately half of them were still using old cloth or cotton during their menstruation.
Soon we realized that the challenge was not to design and impart ‘world class’ modules but to make simple and comprehensible modules that offered practical and cost effective solutions to everyday problems. Spending days with them, we became familiar with their socio-economic constraints; hence we focused more on contextualizing their issues rather than building a content domain, which was jargon-loaded and costly. The nature of the workshops was interactive to accommodate the experiences as well as the surplus of queries that the participants came up with. For the participants who wished anonymity, queries could be written on chits and discussed during the Q&A part of the session. Anonymity was more of a concern for the younger participants as they were still struggling to overcome years of socialisation into shame and embarrassment associated with their bodies. They were encouraged to challenge the prolonging myths and adopt healthy menstrual practices, which are backed by scientific evidence.
With an objective of breaking barriers, Dr. Kapur conducted sessions with male teachers pertaining to their sexual health and hygiene. We noticed that men folk were not comfortable sharing their experiences, nor did they appear for the follow up sessions. However, female teachers and community workers regularly followed up and showed earnest willingness to be a part of more such knowledge- and activity-based programs. We provided continuous encouragement to the male teachers, and at the same time respected their choice of not continuing with the follow up sessions. I sincerely hope that one day, we are able to break this barrier.
Since then, the most recent workshop I have conducted was in March 2018, with the women of Sudhar Camp, Kalkaji. It was an initiative by the Outreach Program Committee of Ramanujan College, University of Delhi, where I work as an Assistant Professor in Dept of Applied Psychology.
Somewhere between facilitating my participants, we developed an everlasting bond. Crossing the barriers of socio-economic status, educational backgrounds, residential setting, and even age, we all grew really fond of each other. Every woman treated me like her sister. They were so filled with love that not even a single day passed when they let us go back home without eating lunch from the school’s common kitchen. I remember one of the community workers who also worked as the kitchen staff, Georgina didi, coming with a glass of chilled water every half an hour. If I didn’t want water, she used to say “bahut garmi hai, pani peene se acha rahega (It’s very hot, drinking water is good)”, keeping the glass on the table.
I was personally so humbled and till date, I consider it to be the most providential experiences of my life. Apart from that, I made some unforgettable memories and gained some valuable lessons.
As time went on, I felt more responsible for the people with whom I was working. To give my best, I was relentlessly dedicated to improve myself with each passing day. I was engrossed with improving the content, resources, material, as well as my personal style of conduction, vernacular, and body language. What seemed as a challenge to me on Day 1, adopting the colloquial style of vernacular, was soon effortlessly integrated in my workshops. Within a few days, I was well aware of all the appropriate Hindi words to use. This helped me a lot in all the later workshops that I conducted with different organisations.
During my journey of being a facilitator of sexual health and hygiene, one of the main rewards was to accenpt that no matter how well read we consider ourselves to be, we are still prone to commit basic and common hygiene mistakes. Right from washing myself the correct way, to abstaining from using all the chemical products being sold with a promise to maintain a healthy pH balance of vagina, I tried to incorporate everything that I was teaching into my own life. I also downloaded an app in my phone to track my menstrual cycles and all the information related to it like length of my cycle, intensity of menstrual cramps, and moods. For the participants, they were encouraged to use old calendars to calculate the length of their menstrual cycles and keep a record. Those who had access to mobile phones were taught to use the mobile apps to maintain their menstrual records.
One of the most significant changes in my menstrual health regime was to switch to a menstrual cup instead of sanitary pads. Admittedly, I was quite reluctant in the beginning but considering its nature of being environment-friendly, hassle-free and cost-effective; I decided to take the plunge. Once I was satisfied with the menstrual cup and I was sure that its pros outweighed the cons, I started encouraging the idea of using a menstrual cup among the participants. Initially, most of them are reluctant, but once we explain the benefits of using a cup they are willing to give it a try. Not only this, I believe that each one of us who has benefited from a menstrual cup should encourage at least our domestic helpers (who we interact with everyday) to start using a cup instead of old cloth or cotton, which cannot be cleaned and dried properly and do more harm than good.
Sexual and menstrual health is not ‘gender specific’. Conversations regarding menstrual health should include men and be discussed without any feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment.
Though menstrual hygiene should be commonly talked about, there is absolutely no way that the significance of a gynaecologist should be underrated. There are several reasons every menstruating person must consider seeing their gynaecologist. Non-menstruating readers are requested to make sure people around them are also aware about these points.
A visit to your gynaecologist in every six months should be a part of your sexual health routine.
A menstrual cycle that is lesser or beyond the average 21 to 35 days must be discussed with the doctor.
Too much cramping before or during your menstrual health, which is not being reduced by pain relieving techniques like hot water bottle, consuming hot liquids, some yoga postures, and even medication, should be treated by your doctor. And remember, don’t self-prescribe!
A woman usually bleeds anywhere between 2 to 7 days, anything lesser or more should be discussed with the gynaecologist. So must immense blood flow, which requires using one sanitary pad every one or two hours.
White discharge is a common phenomenon; in fact, it is an indicator of the menstrual health. However, there are four symptoms that require medical attention. First, if the quantity of the discharge is enough to soak a panty-liner or sanitary pad. Second, a foul smell emanating from the discharge. Third, the colour. Usually, it will be off white, milky white, or pale yellow. If it is bluish, greenish, greyish or pinkish, it may indicate a vaginal infection that needs medical attention. And fourth, the texture. Usually it is smooth, slippery or sticky, but look out for texture is graded or rough.
We all are capable of bringing positive changes in others’ lives. By conducting various workshops for young girls and women, I believe in empowering them to make informed choices and to become peer educators at home, college, or other networks.
Acknowledging that awareness is not a landmark but a long journey, let’s take a first step by psycho-educating ourselves, our girl,s and other women in our network, about issues pertaining to their own sexuality, and maintaining their sexual health and hygiene. Promoting a dialogue and maintaining a nonjudgmental stance about sexual health and hygiene can be a milestone in creating a supportive environment.