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‘I Had To Sleep On A Coconut Frond’: 3 Generations Of Period Stigma

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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 set out to interview people from three generations to see how the experience of menstruation has changed across the years. My interviewees were my mother Uma, aged 59; my aunt Dharuni, aged 42; and my sister Esha, aged 22. All of them had faced different social circumstances from menarche to menopause. These are representative of how far we have come with regards to attitudes towards menstruation, and how far we have to go.

Menarche

Uma: The first time it happened, I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t even know that my first period was a period. I was 16 years old (1975). My household helper noticed that I was staining, and told me to sit in the corner on the floor and not touch anything. She then brought my mother, who put a coconut frond across the floor and told me I had to sleep on it for three days. Just imagine sleeping on that. I told them I couldn’t, so they gave me an old sari to put on the frond. No pillows. I was given only sweet things to eat, and wasn’t allowed to touch anything in the house for the three days. On the fourth day, I was asked to wash my hair, and lots of married women came to my house to bathe me. Before my first period, I knew women used to go outside for three days, but nobody had explained why or that I would have to go as well. I had no idea what to expect. 

Dharuni: The first time it had happened, I was 13 (1989). I didn’t know it was spotting. I just saw that my panties were stained, and I was confused and scared. I was coming back from somewhere, I remember I was wearing a skirt, and when I got home I saw my panties were soaked, and I was experiencing some pain. I called my older sister and told her something was wrong; I didn’t want anybody else to know. She called our mom, and I remember feeling panicked about it. I really didn’t want to talk about it to anybody, because in the back of my mind, I felt I had done something wrong. My mom came, and I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember no one felt happy about it. No one stopped to make me feel good. What I distinctly remember, though, is that I was told to stay separately, I was given a piece of cloth, and my sister demonstrated how I had to use a homemade sanitary napkin.

Esha: I was 13 when I got my first period (2009). I was fairly well-informed about what to expect; my mother had taught me how to use a pad, and we had had a science class about periods. It started in school, but I didn’t freak out, and I had no apprehensions about telling my teacher that I was on my period. As I stood in the bus on my way back (as I couldn’t find a pad), I felt no shame telling anyone that I was on my period.

Social Attitudes

Uma: Everyone thought periods were an ‘unclean time’. Women had to go through extraordinary hardships. You couldn’t enter the house, you couldn’t touch anything, you had to depend on other people for the most basic things. The next few times, I didn’t tell my mother when I got my period. I had to hide it so I could help my younger siblings get ready for school, cook, and go to school. I would always tell her on a Friday, because Saturday and Sunday were holidays and I could afford to sit outside. By Monday, I’d be back in the house. My mother couldn’t attend her brother’s wedding because of periods, and women used to take medicines to delay periods during festivals and special occasions.

Dharuni: Sometimes we you were allowed to sit in the house,  but by the fact that you couldn’t move, everybody knew. For me, that was the most embarrassing thing. We were given food way after everyone else. You couldn’t participate in any social activity, and if you touched any cloth, you had to wash it. You had your own set of plates, and couldn’t eat with the others. We felt like outcasts, and soon figured that if we didn’t tell, we wouldn’t have to be treated this way. The discomfort and the embarrassment were reason enough to stop sharing the monthly occurrences with our mother. When she found out that we were hiding this she’d make us sit out for three days. But with time, and a very unpleasant negotiation, we struck a bargain with her where we were allowed inside the house but were to stay away from the pooja area and the kitchen. Each sister fought her own war. And it was a war, there was no mistaking it. But one thing that sticks in my mind is my father’s compassionate side. I remember him saying, “If I can, I’ll take that pain.” He would have, too.

Esha: Middle school boys were a little bit—well, dudes in my class thought it was funny. They thought it was fun to shame people, like, if they found a pad in a girl’s bag, they’d wave it around and it would be hilarious for some reason. But I don’t think they were the majority of the boys, and otherwise I have had a fairly chill experience. I have never had a problem in asking for a pad; I think pads and water are two things nobody denies you. Actually, it’s a rule of a friend of mine, never to deny water or pads to anyone. We’ve never really been banned from doing anything (other than swimming, which I understand), but I know people in my generation who have. Some girls I know aren’t allowed to go into mandirs, or the kitchen.

Resources Available

Uma: Old saris were all that was available. As far as information is concerned, there was none.

Dharuni: Are you kidding me? (Makes ‘zero’ sign). At one point, some people came to show us pads, tell us what menstruation was, and show us how to use them. I remember giggling about it. The pads were too expensive, and the elders in my family thought them unnecessary. I had no idea how periods were related to having a child, or what they meant. I was unprepared, uninformed, and had no way of educating myself until much later.

Esha: In terms of sanitary products, that has never been a problem. There’s obviously a lot of variety, and I’d love to try out some of the new products, like menstrual cups, reusable cloth pads, and I would like to try Thinx (period panties). It was founded by two brown sisters, they featured a trans man in their ads, its tagline is ‘panties for people who menstruate”. (Of course, I know the founder of the company was accused of sexual harassment, and I don’t know if I want to support her business.)

What Changes They Have Seen

Uma: I’ve seen a lot of positive changes, in the sense that people no longer exclude women from all social activities during those few days. Also, information and products available for menstrual hygiene are more accessible.

Dharuni: There is greater availability of material, and an understanding that it is not a bad thing anymore. Places of worship have become more open. But people who plan parties to announce the “attained age”? I don’t know about them, it makes me feel sick.

Esha: I’d only know about my generation firsthand. But over the years with my generation, we have come to realise that different people have different kinds of periods, and different amounts of pain. I go to an all girls’ college, and I’ve seen that people are understanding of people not being able to work because of their period, while that wasn’t the case in school. Also, my male friends have grown to be more understanding, and even inquisitive, about the process.

What Changes They Would Like To See

Uma: Early education of girls, mothers, and also boys, is essential.

Dharuni: Mothers need to be educated. They need to know how to talk to their kids about it, and what it means in the long run. A more simple and clear instruction should be given, in a standardised form, to young children about this. Things are a lot different now, so they’re not as bad as they used to be, but I speak from a place of privilege. I don’t think this exists four streets down, even.

Esha: Personally, I guess I’d like better understanding in public spaces. I’m okay with stains being visible, like I know it’s also a hygiene issue, but if I have stained and I’ve already changed my pad, and it isn’t likely to repeat, I don’t think it’s really anyone’s business to tell me that I’ve stained. And I know this might sound trite, but we need easier access to better quality products for everyone. Also, if you’re going to have a sense of humour about periods, try to have a good one, like a sensitive, informed one.

Menopause

Uma: My menopause was, hmm… I had a lot of mood swings, and periods when I was physically and emotionally violent. For the first time, I had experienced rage. I immediately went for medical assistance, but lack of awareness led me to have a tough time.

Dharuni: Due to my thyroid problems, symptoms were mistaken to be something else at first. I lacked awareness to tell the two apart. When my periods became erratic, I started reading up, and visited a gynaecologist. I had seen my mom go through menopause, so I could see behavioural changes in me. After 4 or 5 months, I found out that I was in perimenopause. Now I’m on medication to manage mood swings and thyroid levels. My mother was untreated, and was very violent, physically abusive, and harsh. Now I know if she’d had the right support it would not have been so bad. Family and support system is a very important factor. But at the end of 365 days of perimenopause I feel a great sense of freedom that I don’t ever have to face periods again.

Esha: Are we done? I don’t have anything to say about menopause!


Do your family members have an story about period stigma? Join our #NoMoreLimits campaign, and publish a story here!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.

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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

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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
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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