It was a sunny afternoon. I was returning from school, hopping on the staircase. My mother noticed a stain on my school uniform and rushed me to the bathroom. I found it unnecessary. My uniform was always stained – you know, school times! But what I actually saw was the culmination of what my mother was trying to prepare me for. My first period had occurred! I was given a sanitary napkin. I still remember how uncomfortable I felt.
My mother rushed to the sweets shop to buy me my favourite gulab jamun. My father called me up and congratulated me. I was still shivering. My mother’s friend cooked me my favourite pav bhaji. My parents were celebrating, while I was still wondering how to respond to the whole situation.
It’s been 14 years since then, which means 168 menstrual cycles. In school, I would have muscle cramps. I would writhe in pain, while my male classmates would ridicule me for crying out. Gradually, I was able to bear the pain and I grew stronger. Ultimately, isn’t that what all women are expected to be?
Well, this is my story.
But did you know that 71% of girls in India had no knowledge of menstruation before their first period? According to a report by FSG supported by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, schoolgirls in Jaipur, Rajasthan report their dominant feelings to be shock (25%), fear (30%), anxiety (69%), guilt (22%), and frustration (22%). They weren’t prepared by the elders about what lay ahead. The story in other parts of India stays the same.
Jasleen, a post-graduation student at Ambedkar University narrated, “I got my first period when I was in 6th standard. I didn’t even know what it was. I was completely unaware. It was more a negative surprise (as it involved stomach cramps) other than being positive. But now when I look back, I feel that periods is something special which can only be experienced by the female gender.”
Growing up, I have known friends who weren’t allowed to touch specific objects or visit religious places, when on periods. I still shake my head in horror at the reality that plagues lakhs of women across India.
Menstrual health is such a taboo in our society that I had to muster courage to write this article – because we are used to speaking about periods in hushed tones. So the above statistics come as no surprise to me. We carry our sanitary napkins to the washroom as if we are smuggling drugs. When this is the norm, how do we even begin to explain leave or work from home during our periods to our male bosses?
Such is the irony – menstruation is the path to new life, but it is discussed in secret and with shame. It is attached to countless superstitions, often perpetuated by women themselves.
Maybe there’s hope. Maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe there will be change, when societies collectively start addressing menstrual health for the sake of women who suffer without proper healthcare. I do think that it will begin when we start talking about it in public without fear, such as on prime time news debates, instead of just ‘women-oriented’ television shows.