Looking back at my teenage days, I remember how everyone distanced themselves from talking about periods, even at home. I first learned about menstruation when I was 12-years old. My mother and sister explained that this would happen every month and that it was nothing to worry about. However, I mustn’t tell my friends about it, especially boys.
I remember one day when a few women from a sanitary napkin brand came to my school to tell us more about periods. They demonstrated how one uses a sanitary napkin and even gave us a sample. I remember all the boys being really curious about the napkin as they had seen the advertisements on TV.
Growing up, I came across many stories about periods from my friends. I was told that I shouldn’t go to a temple, that I shouldn’t exercise or that I shouldn’t eat curd and dried mango as they can enlarge breasts during menstruation.
When I was 15 years old, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Disorder (PCOD) and had to take medication for 5 years. At first, I was happy that I didn’t have to worry about periods anymore. But when I visited the doctor, she explained to me how important and natural it is to have periods. This made me wonder if other girls or women face the same issue as me.
More recently, through my work at the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF), I broadened my perspective and knowledge of menstruation and menstrual hygiene. During one of my work-related field visit to Japla village in Jharkhand, I came across a group of women who made eco-friendly, low-cost sanitary napkins. Earlier, these women used to use old clothes during their periods, a practice they learned from their mothers as sanitary napkins were not easily available in most parts of rural India. Even if they were available, they costed at least Rs.30. Considering that most families in the area earn approximately Rs.2000-3000 a month, this was unaffordable. Especially if there were multiple women in the family. The workers (women) were sceptical of sanitary pads at first because they didn’t know how to use them. However, I soon realised it was all due to the taboos and stereotypes that unfortunately surrounded menstruation as one of the workers explained that “these pieces of cloth were used to soak the blood and therefore locals believed that if men saw these pieces of cloth then they could die or that they could attract bad spirits.”
This experience got stuck with me. It helped me understand the issues women and girls in rural India still face. In cities, we have easy access to information through the internet, doctors, medicines, a variety of menstrual products and orientations in school. In contrast, women in villages don’t receive any of this. Many, don’t know why they have periods, or where the menstrual blood comes from. They rely entirely on older generations and have no other source of information. They have been taught to perceive menstruation as a taboo! Sometimes to the extent that all they know is that if a woman or a girl doesn’t menstruate, she is probably pregnant.
As our gender sessions continued in other locations in India on spreading awareness about menstruation and safe menstrual hygiene practices while challenging other stereotypes, the youth were ready to try out the change. They understood that using an eco-friendly cloth pad was a better choice than a piece of cloth as it was hygienic and could prevent a lot of diseases. Our discussions also led to the conclusions that a period is not a matter of shame and it is a natural process. Soon after, many of the women shared their experiences with others in the village and that sparked an increase in the use of eco-friendly sanitary napkins. A packet of 6 napkins only costed Rs.10 in most places, which was an affordable and safe option.
It is essential that girls and women are given the right information about menstruation and these taboos and myths are ended once and for all. In our Kadam Badhate Chalo program, a youth-led initiative to end violence against women and girls, we ensure that we educate youth and their mothers on these issues. We developed a range of modules in order to provide factual data about menstruation, which also teaches them about how they can use homemade cloth pads safely.
The need of the hour is to educate men and boys to support women during their periods. It isn’t easy to let go of traditional knowledge which has passed down from generations, but now it’s time that we challenge the patriarchal norms that have caged women in taboos related to menstruation and spread the word that ‘periods are good‘.