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The Culture Of Period Shaming Has To Stop

This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

When I got my first period, my mother told me the basics of wearing a pad, and that was all. She never told me not to enter the kitchen or the temple in the house. She also did not pass down the manual called periods 101, which has instructions on what to wear, what to do, what to eat. I was neither exiled to another room nor made to sleep on the floor.

Despite the lack of restrictions and taboos, the first night of my period, I slept as stiff as a log because I did not want my father and brother to know. Despite my mom’s semi-progressive take on periods, how did the 13-year old me learn to be ashamed about her periods?

The incident in Bhuj’s hostel, where 68 students were harassed by asking them to remove their underwear as proof of ‘their purity’ shows us how entrenched the shame around periods is in our society. One student residing at the hostel said “We are punished for having periods. This happens even if we follow their religious rules. They made us remove our undergarments because they thought some of us were lying about not having periods, and mingling with the others against the rules. But the humiliation meted out to us on Thursday was the last straw.

An angry woman and two text boxes that say it's all in your head and are you pms-ing.
Representational image.

This is one extreme of the spectrum of period shaming. However, at the other end of the spectrum, every person who menstruates faces period shaming in silent ways. Even in urban households where things are starting to change, shame about periods perpetuates through the unspoken signals from society.

According to Dasra’s Spot On report, 80% of mothers (women who themselves menstruate) consider menstruation ‘dirty’, perpetuating a culture of shame and embarrassment around a natural act of the body. Would you imagine feeling embarrassed every time you had to pee?

Even seasoned menstruators will tell you that leaks are usual. However, one of the significant anxieties around periods is leaking. “I had just left a meeting from the office only to realise that I had blood all over my kurta. I wasn’t worried at first because I could cover it with my tote bag and my house was only 5 minutes away. It all soon changed because as I was walking down to get a rickshaw, everyone started staring at me. It made me so uncomfortable and embarrassed that by the time I got in, I couldn’t help but cry.” This is something that one of my coworkers called me to say after she reached home only to conclude how silly she felt for crying over a stain.

Even when you have unlearnt and learnt to be proud of your periods, society continues to shame you silently. When people fail to unlearn the stigmas around periods, we sometimes pay a heavy price. In 2017, a 12-year-old girl committed suicide because her teacher humiliated her over a period stain in front of the class, gave her a duster cloth to use as a pad and made her stand outside the class the whole day.

Television with a sanitary pad ad
Representational image.

Do you remember seeing ads of sanitary pads on TV as a child and sensing the awkward silence in the house? Did you figure out what the ad was for until you reached your teens? You see women dancing in white pants, and blue liquid poured over the pad. Do you ever see the cover of a sanitary pad in the ad, the neon green colour?

The mainstream media has covered sanitary pads with an aura of silence and shame. Even though their advertisements seem like they are trying to empower women, they have subtly and consistently told us that pads should be as hidden as a country’s nuclear codes.

For the longest time, every time I had to take out a pad to change in the school or my office, I felt like I was planning a heist. The professor would be proud of my skills, though. I had to track the movement of people around me, stealthily take the pad out of my bag or cover it in a newspaper or sit uncomfortably to get an opening without people around.

Seventy-five % of women in urban India buy sanitary napkins covered in newspaper. Who are we exactly trying to save from a sight a small neon green packet? If someone feels uncomfortable, they need to unlearn rather than make you feel shameful about your periods.

Period shaming is also perpetuated when we don’t want to tell others that we are on our period. We are afraid that our pain won’t be taken seriously, or our emotions will be mocked. Women often cancel plans like swimming that would expose that they were on their periods or when they were dealing with PMS and period pain.

Think about all the times it seemed like a better idea to tell you are not feeling well rather than saying that you are on your periods or to think of reasons to reschedule your travel plans because you would be on your period at that time. Again, who are we trying to save by withholding the information?

If it is the men in our lives, it is time they become part of the dialogue around menstruation. Women alone can not end the fight against period shaming and especially not when we are trying to mollycoddle the men in our lives.

If we want to smash the stigmas around periods, the small acts of rebellion are as important as the protests out in the streets. End the silent period shaming. The next time you leak, sport it around till the washroom and take that sanitary napkin with pride. If you want to cancel plans to take care of yourself, go ahead and do it but be period proud and tell your friends and family that you are on your period. Break the silence around period shaming and have a conversation with anyone who feels uncomfortable when you say period.

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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.

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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

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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