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I Wasn’t Embarassed Of My Period, But What Kept Me From Talking To Men About It?

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WASH logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #NoMoreLimits, a campaign by WASH United and Youth Ki Awaaz to break the silence on menstrual hygiene. If you'd like to become a menstrual hygiene champion, share your story on any one of these 5 themes here.

I’ve thought about this timeline more often than I could count. Especially in the recent times, after the much-needed conversations around menstrual hygiene, the lack of it, the taboos that we as a society continue to fight and the perils of them all constantly undermining a woman’s health. But as I sit back and think about the many biological battles that women face during their lifetime from cradle to grave, a bizarre sense of hopelessness clouds my thoughts. I realize how even in the 21st century, conversations around a woman’s body are still nothing but a hush affair.

From menstruation to the monstrous PCOS, from infertility to miscarriages, from masturbation to sexuality, from reproductive health to sexual independence, she hasn’t yet managed to break those shackles. She continues to long that her health and necessities be discussed and supported, she secretly hopes that the world realises her flesh and blood are not a point of stigma or taboo but merely human.

As I look back at my own journey down this jaded path as a 90s kid and try to reminisce the conversations that my life has enabled me to have about the same, I realise the privilege I’ve had on being brought up in a fairly open-minded, educated and humanistic household. In spite of that, I was always of the firm opinion that ‘Period’ was a topic that was forbidden from being discussed in the presence of the boys.

I was 16, a student of class XI, on my period and dealing with those unpardoning cramps of day one. It was the chemistry lab hour when my teacher was quite pursuant that my classmate (a boy) and I finish off with the remaining experiments that we had pending from the previous session. I constantly tried to get her to notice my plight of not even being able to stand, without ticking off my male partner’s senses because God forbid he gets to know that “I was on my period”.

As I finally tried to tell her that I had my breakfast and my stomach ache was because of something else, she yelped at once, “Oh gosh! Periods! That’s alright! I know! I had the same problem when I was your age. I couldn’t even manage to get out of my bed. That’s OK! It’ll pass” she said in a matter-of-fact way. I stood there dumbstruck with the disbelief that my teacher as opposed to being my confidant and coming to my rescue in what seemed like sheer agony at that moment had just openly discussed my period in the presence of a boy. It all seemed eerily unbelievable.

The question here was of whether I was actually embarrassed by the whole ordeal of my secretive period being shoved out in the open?

No, I wasn’t. Even then I knew my period isn’t a thing to be embarrassed about, that it was my bodily function, It was universal, it was human.

What was it then, that I was worried about?  It was just the sheer shock of having something fall out of the line of what was deeply ingrained in my head, that menstruation was a secret affair which was not supposed to be discussed publicly.

Who taught me so? No! it wasn’t my mother. She never directly preached about not discussing my periods in front of others. But I saw that she herself never did so, and whenever she did, she made sure there was none around other than my father. The child saw she emulated, she believed, and her world just turned upside down with her teacher’s deed.

I didn’t know what got me more agitated at that point, in that Chemistry lab on that sunny afternoon. Was it the sheer lack of her apathy towards my plight or the fact that she just burst my secret bubble and she appeared like she couldn’t care less? As I stood there continuing to gawk at her in horror, she seemed to sense my disapproval of her act when she replied “What? Is it him? (pointing at my classmate) That’s okay! He’s a big boy now, he understands. Finish off with your experiment and I’ll see you in a while. No excuses.” And off she went and changed my world forever and the way I handled my life and my periods. It was a sermon delivered like a bullet as two facets of realisation silently dawned on me. One, a period is normal enough to be discussed and two, I could be stronger than I was in fighting my day one jitters.

Would I have remained prudish for life if not for her actions on the day?

Not really. But the change and the learning would have taken longer and come much later with age and perception.

I grew up into a woman who always has open conversations with both her male and female friends about periods and the relative issues that we women face as more often than not I did find my friends casually throwing away the word ‘PMSing’. I even had to convince my girlfriends that it was ‘okay’ to talk and that they needed to stop acting like their bodies were a myth. I tried to constantly preach that boys will only be able to understand when we make them understand because in all likely hood they hail from homes similar to ours where taboos are rampant.

I was always that girl who straight up told my guy friends that I couldn’t join them for the day or not make it to college because I had period cramps, instead of mixing words to come up with verbiages like stomach ache or fever. I was always that girl who tried to reason with my mom that not entering the ‘mandir’ during periods is the grossest taboo ever. I haven’t been able to persuade her to let go of the ritual till date. But I nevertheless I tried to make my point.

So I cringe with despair today as what seemed like a relatively smooth ride in my life continues to be the biggest challenge in today’s India as we grapple with the problem of not including the other gender in “The Conversation”. A potential answer to the country ’s multitier problems which include among the many other things: the lack of apathy and support to a woman’s biological needs to negligence, misconduct, eve teasing, perverseness, moral digress, rape culture and misogyny. The forces which create an unbreakable cycle of compulsion to remain silent and bury their problems deeper.

While the urban and rural divide of education aided thought process seems pretty evident and needs to be worked upon, many women who belong to the relatively privileged backgrounds have it on the default that the men in their lives get the issues right. Which many a time is not the case and which is why one must insist that young girls and women try to stir a conversation with the other gender when they are met with wrong ideas.

I remember once having a candid conversation about family planning with a male friend of mine. I remember how this educated and decently well-groomed gentleman said he would never be “the one” to take on the onus of getting a vasectomy and it had to be his wife. The shock that crept over me then made me realise that male privilege and disregard for a woman’s body and health is not such a distant thing after all. It could actually be those people who are very close to you. It could be your colleague, your childhood friend, a school friend, a college friend, your cousin or your very own brother. It could be anyone. It could be that someone who you knew all your life and never once doubted to be harbouring such thoughts. And we were kept in the dark because in all likelihood we never really discussed such issues with them. And we were blissfully unaware of the lack of apathy of these male counterparts.

The power of conversation stands obviously in the light of such encounters. In my life, I stirred a conversation. Not in the whole world, but at least with my near and dear ones and made them respect my body and my woes and my space. I couldn’t persuade my mother to change her prayer room habits but I got her to understand my point of view, she, in turn, respected my thoughts and never forced her rituals on me. I confronted my friend about his hugely misinformed notions about vasectomy being viewed as a peril to manhood and showed him the gamut of patriarchy he seems to be nurturing without even realising. He realised he was wrong.

From doctors who treat PCOS only as a fertility issue to the lack of even primary health care when it comes to sexual and reproductive health of women to having zero conversations about genital hygiene and safe sexual practices to the sheer absence of responsible sex education for adolescents and young adults in our country, the problems around reproductive health and women’s’ bodies seem insurmountable.

But the access to care, hygiene products and medical assistance, the infrastructural, economic and social requirements can only be fulfilled when we begin to have conversations. The importance of parents and teachers sitting down young girls and more importantly boys to talk to them about female health issues is vital. It’s time we introduce our children to their bodies as we introduced them to the world. It’s time we took steps to make it a natural progression and a compulsory human trait. The more the delay creeps in, the more we are bound to see ourselves stuck in trying to still fight the rudimentary stigma which shouldn’t be existing in the first place.

Let's ensure that no girl is limited by something as natural and normal as her period by making menstrual hygiene education compulsory in schools.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

  • Mobilising young people between the age of 18-35 to become ‘Eco-Period Champions’ by making the switch to a sustainable menstrual alternative and becoming advocates for the project
  • All existing and upcoming public institutions (pink toilets, washrooms, schools, colleges, government offices, government buildings) across East Delhi to have affordable provisions for sustainable menstrual product options

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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