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When I Started Menstruating My Mother Knew I Was Suffering, But Didn’t Help

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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.

Even today, I consider that day to be special – that day when I crossed the threshold of a new realm. I was not a child anymore. I did not know how to cherish that great shift in my life. No one told me how I should enjoy my new self. The only thing I realised was that the new world was so dirty, painful and stinking that I started hating myself.

That day was just like the other days. I returned from school, changed my uniform in the washroom, and happily went to watch my favourite show on television. My life seemed to be something else – till the moment my mother hurriedly came and asked me about the reddish-black stains on my maroon school uniform. Yes, I too had noticed those stains on my skirt. But, who would spare even a single second for some strange, ‘meaningless’ stains, especially when one had to watch their favourite show? Unfortunately, those stains were not ‘meaningless’ for my mother – and they did not remain so for me either, for the rest of my life.

For my mother, my inability to trace the trails of blood was a confirmation that the ‘big day’ had arrived in my life. After initially reacting with a mixture of shock, fear and hopelessness, the first thing she did was to take out a packet from a plastic bag hidden in a dark corner of the room. To my utter surprise, the packet looked just like those which I had seen before in the TV ads. I was eager to know the use of that strange-looking soft stuff made of what seemed to be cotton. However my curiosity vanished after a few hours as I found that nice, soft thing, which my mother had called ‘pad’ (and which, later, I came to know as a ‘sanitary napkin’), to be soiled with similar-looking reddish-black stains on my skirt, with an intolerable smell that could have turned my stomach inside out. I was agitated and confused about what was happening to me. However, not a single person explained the reason behind this continuous bleeding that added a horrifying pain in the lower abdomen area. This was how the ‘bloody’, confused, painful days of my first period passed.

But it came again – and this time, I was told by my mother to use pieces of clothes instead of sanitary napkins (which would cost her extra money). For the first time, I felt as though the most important thing in my life was a packet of sanitary napkins. My favourite chocolates, TV shows – everything seemed unimportant in front of those white, soft things.

The days of disgust and pain continued. Each fold of the cloth-pieces used to create identical patterns of blood – just like hand-printed clothes in boutique. So strong and deep were those patterns that their imprints are still fresh in my memory. Even the most expensive detergent powder available in the market could not remove the dark, deep and stinking trauma caused by washing blood-soiled clothes for a couple of years.

Now, nearly a decade after, when I look back at those days (which I cannot help but do often), the first person I feel disgusted and angry with is my mother. Her silence, indifferent attitude and lack of compassion towards me during those days often compel me to swear to myself to not forgive her ever. But, when I try to keep calm and think critically, I find that our mothers (including mine) should not be blamed for their ruthless attitude towards their daughters during their menstrual cycles. Rather, fingers should be raised towards the system which, for ages, has been compelling them to treat their daughters with a lack of compassion. The trails of blood helped me unravel a cycle which not only includes our bodies and hormones, but also a system that injects the concepts of ‘untouchability’, ‘impurity’ (among others) inside our minds.

Our mothers, too, were victims of this system that once barred them from entering temples, mosques, churches and from touching pickle. This was a system which also confined them inside dirty rooms separated from their homes in order to save the houses from being ‘impure’. A list of dos and don’ts, most of which were based on superstition, were imposed on them by their mothers and grandmothers. But no one cared to remove their anxiety, erase their fear and diminish their pain by explaining the reasons behind this bodily change. Neither did they try to be compassionate and considerate to them or of things which would have brought comfort to them.

Now, the crucial question is: was the condition of our great grandmothers better than that of our mothers and us? The answer is obviously a big no. The tradition of imposing sets of superstitious values, misconceptions regarding menstruation has been going on for ages. The legacy of ‘untouchability’ (that we owe to our mothers, grandmothers and so on), interestingly, was perhaps not created by any of them, but by a society that has been aiming to suppress half of its inhabitants on the basis of their biological identity, using every possible means.

The woes of women have always been neglected, hidden or veiled with glorifying narratives. This time, a crucial biological function in the female body, which demands serious attention, care and concern, has been turned into a taboo, thereby hiding it from public view. I remember the number of times I got strange looks from the men in my family. I have also felt the awkward silence after confessing that I was on my periods, or that my lower abdomen was aching.

When will society’s isolation of menstruating women end? (Representative image. Image source: Huffington Post)

It seems ironical to me that the birth of a baby occupies a crucial position in our social life, whereas the very first stage of this preparation (to be able to give birth) does not even hold a niche. By saying this, I do not want to make statements like ‘motherhood is biological’ or ‘every woman must give birth’. My intention is to simply highlight how an extremely crucial hormonal change within women remains unacknowledged in society, while its possible outcome is celebrated everywhere.

Most women internalise this tradition of ‘untouchability’ in such a way that they often forget to sympathise with their fellow sisters, daughters and other women. They even tend to normalise their discomfort and suffering by following and making deeply-insensitive statements like “Every women must go through this”“This is natural, and there is reason to make a fuss about it” or “Women should be able to tolerate the pain silently”, etc. What can be more scary than this, given the fact that young women are taught these by their elders who themselves have experienced such suffering and pain?

But, at the same time, how can we accuse those who spent their lives serving their families, sacrificing themselves completely at the mercy of their husbands? Deprived of any exposure to the world of education and wisdom, most of our grandmothers did not have the option of protesting or thinking critically about their miserable situation. And most of our mothers, who may have had the good fortune to be acquainted with the world of education, were probably never encouraged to think on their own. Instead, they were asked to accept, internalise and follow the instructions given by their elders. Who, or what, do we actually blame? The system, of course. But where does the system lie? Are not we part of this system? Or, in other words, doesn’t the system lie within each of us?

I do strongly believe that the menstrual woes of women from the underprivileged sections of the society do need serious attention. Awareness programmes, campaigning, workshops regarding menstrual hygiene, and distribution of sanitary napkins are some necessary steps which are often taken by governmental and non-governmental organisations, and sometimes by individuals. No doubt, these are undoubtedly praiseworthy.

However, there are still lakhs of women who feel ashamed to talk about their menstrual problems freely. Interestingly enough, not all of them are illiterate or belong to the unprivileged or backward sectors of society. While enlightening women from the backward sectors, are not we taking their ‘educated’, ‘liberal’, ‘privileged’ counterparts for granted? At times, I feel confused and horrified when I find my ‘highly-educated’ friends and teachers (both men and women) feel ashamed about discussing their experiences of menstruation or even while attending any workshop or performance on menstruation.

I feel that the act of breaking the barriers should be undertaken by both men and women. This is high time for men to break the ice and come forward to learn, talk, discuss and ask questions about menstruation without hesitation. It is very important for men to clear certain misconceptions about menstruation they often have. A free space for expressing and sharing views, discussing issues, and exploring the layers of complex ideas related to menstruation will definitely help in removing the idea of menstruation as a taboo. This free space has to be created by us by breaking down the barriers.

As I have said before, the system is within us – and so do the barriers. Who else but us can break the barriers and change the system?

_

Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Huffington Post

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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