A girl never forgets her first menstruation experience. It often starts with stained underwear, followed by confusion, a disclosure, and then the ultimate ‘covert operation training’ on how to never let the world see that she just might be menstruation because… ‘nature’?
The whole process of asking for a pad, to using it, and disposing of it has to be more furtive than a clandestine rendezvous with the nearest pot dealer! And, god forbid, if someone were to see a period stain, it would have to disappear faster than a body in the woods. Speaking of gods, the same god who might have created me and my organs, now allegedly deems me unfit to be near them because a natural phenomenon of menstruation (like breathing or sleeping or burping) supposedly makes me impure!
From learning about why we bleed, to what to do (or not) when we bleed, to how menstruation can affect our identities, rights and equal opportunities–it took me long years of bleeding and heaps of reading and listening to narratives on period talk to understand why it is very important to talk about it, and as early as possible.
After about 36 or 40 times of repeating my ‘covert training‘ and getting it almost right every time, and roughly after about three years after I got my first periods, on the eve of my leaving school–we were going to have our first-ever class on ‘sex education’. In my all-girls convent school, you could have sensed a relative discomfort to talk, see or hear about things like menstruation cycle, reproduction system and sexual organs.
Having a talk on menstruation with just a chart of ovaries and fallopian tubes is actually an incomplete discourse on menstruation without connecting the dots of gender, stigma, sexual and reproductive rights, power, and patriarchy. I remember back then most of us were giggling, not out of shyness, but at the futility of the whole exercise at this point in our lives when almost all of us had successfully started menstruating by then. Today after more than ten years of leaving school, I asked a current student there about their status of sex education. When she related her experience, I realised that nothing had changed.
My brother went to an all-boys school in our little town. Forget a better experience, they didn’t even have a half-hearted program like ours, as if people who menstruate around them will not affect them in any way. Some of my friends went to a co-ed school where it was apparently an even greater taboo. Apart from the curriculum and extracurricular, education experts stress the significance of a ‘hidden curriculum’ to instill certain values and information into children.
Samujjal Dey, a young lawyer I know from Shillong, has been trying to make sex education compulsory in schools. He told me that he believes it will not only help a child understand and accept their body, it will also help in curbing sexual crimes, especially among juveniles.
Making students clean their own classrooms, tree plantation drives, and even sex education are examples of hidden curriculum adopted by many schools. A hidden curriculum differs along with the values and convenience of different schools.
Although menstruation has existed ever since ovary would have developed within a living organism, the forum on menstruation and sex education has remained the same—boring, outdated, and strictly separate for boys and girls in most schools. It also needs to incorporate new approaches like the impact of periods on health, both physical and mental, of both women as well as men, if men intend to be their partners because it impacts them also in many ways. In addition, it must include a rigorous talk on the different ways and products one can explore, especially the new eco-friendly sanitary products which serve not just the body but also the environment.
While we lay great emphasis on the school’s role in instructing children, the onus also lies heavily on families to sensitise their children on the same. Most children spend most of their time with their families and so, the impact of the family as an agent of socialisation would be very strong in training the child’s reaction and response to menstruation.
While most men can watch all the blood and gore in the world most gracefully, one sight of menstrual blood makes them uneasy very easily. While we justify animal sacrifices and bloody games between animals and birds in the name of religion and culture, yet we teach our children that menstruating women cannot enter places of kitchen or worship or common living areas of the house.
Will then, a class or two in a year, that too taken only at the convenience of the schools, actually make good for all that children have learned at home all their lives? While sex education is much required, there must also be greater sensitisation of the collective society to understand how our attitude towards menstruation can leave a mark in the memory bank of a child. We would be advised to learn from a parent who wisely remarked, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.