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Whispered Secrets Taught Me Periods Are When You Bleed From Your Vagina

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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.

The stigma around menstruation doesn’t exist in isolation. It is nurtured in a patriarchal society, much like gender roles, toxic masculinity, and rape culture. In such a society, children grow up surrounded by the stigma around menstruation. When a young menstruator gets their period, their first few experiences often shape their initial understanding of it.

They are highly impressionable and learn how to behave from their environment. Thus, the hush-hush around menstruation leave young menstruators under the impression that they should not speak about periods in public, that it’s a ‘secret’ only ‘women’ should know about.

Youth Ki Awaaz’s survey revealed that 11% of the total respondents did not know about menstruation, and 18.8% were confused until menarche. A whopping 80% of the respondents said they felt negative emotions when they first got their period.

Therefore it is essential that a young menstruator is made comfortable with the subject and provided a safe space to talk about it. But when a silencing culture is nurtured and fostered in society, dismantling it becomes essential.

So What Is The Silencing Culture?

Patriarchy suppresses women’s freedom to express themselves. This suppression also extends to their bodies. Just like a woman’s pleasure is rarely talked about, neither is their pain. Menstruators have to call in sick or tell people that they are feeling unwell when they have period cramps.

Jaya, a high school student, says that earlier her period cramps used to be very bad and she had to take days often off. Her mother would give an excuse for a regular check-up to the school every month. Even asking for a pad in spaces like a classroom or workplace is done in whispers. But where do people learn to do that?

It starts early. Young menstruators are often asked to stay silent about being on their period around the men in the house. They are reprimanded for staining their clothes or bed sheets. Some are told that a woman is impure or dirty during her periods. Harshita, who is in her third year of college, says that growing up her mother wasn’t allowed to leave her room and she wasn’t allowed to touch her. “After pestering my mother one day she told me it was a ‘monthly fever’ and if I touched her I would get the fever too.

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My sister and I would watch advertisements for sanitary napkins and wonder what they were for. No one would answer our constant questions about them. Frustrated, we once asked our family members in front of a gathering,” says Saumya, a law student.

The most common response on how menstruators first got to know about periods was advertisements. Many responded saying they thought the napkins were adult diapers because of the blue liquid shown in the advertisements.

Advertisements of sanitary pads don’t provide answers to young menstruators. When their questions go unanswered, they learn that it is probably something they are not allowed to talk about.

Keeping A Secret

Menstruation is talked about in whispers as if it’s a secret shared only by menstruators. Harshita says that the girls in her school who got their period first would exclude her from their conversations. “From the hush-hush talks, I just learned that it was a ‘girl thing’; you bleed from your private parts; it was supposed to be a secret.

Schools should teach young menstruators about the menstrual cycle and help them prepare by providing them with the necessary information and not just as a topic in the syllabus. However, these ‘outside syllabus’ conversations in schools include only women teachers and young girls, behind closed doors.

We had sessions where we were told about periods. We would be taken to separate rooms and told not to tell the boys what we talked about,” says Prerna, a second-year college student.

This segregation of genders when talking about menstruation teaches young menstruators that only women are supposed to know about periods. “We were even told how to hide a pad and take it to the washroom so that the boys in the class did not get to know,” adds Prerna.

Credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plc6NDBXAX8

The Mystery Of Black Bags And Newspaper Wrappings

I remember when I went with my mother to buy pads for the very first time, the shopkeeper wrapped it in a newspaper and gave it to her. That made me feel that it was to be hidden from others, especially men,” says Adhishree, student and co-founder of GirlUp Mukti.

A pack of pads being wrapped in a blag bag or newspaper by the shopkeeper is a common practice in India. This only adds to the understanding of young menstruators that holding a pad in plain sight is a big no.

Feeling Dirty Or ‘Impure’

Many menstruators expressed that they couldn’t practise any religious rituals during their periods. This excluded them from activities in the house, adding to the feeling of exclusion and impurity experienced by a menstruator.

I thought period blood was dirty and it disgusted me,” says Anamica who co-founded GirlUp Mukti and is currently in her third year of college. She says that her mother would make her wash the clothes she wore on her menstrual days even if they weren’t stained and she had only worn them for two hours.

All these practices come together to form the silencing culture. Harshita and Jaya said that they understood a lot about menstruation from the internet. They realized that it was a thing that happened not just to them but a lot of people. The internet and information from peers help a lot of menstruators to understand their bodies and menstrual cycles better. But this comes later. In the initial experiences of getting their period, they are left confused or part of a ‘girly secret’.

The silencing culture around periods thus leaves young menstruators to fend for themselves. Educational institutions and family support can make this experience better, but as we see, it often makes it one filled with mystery and something to feel shameful about.

The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program

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  1. Rishav Bhattacharya

    This is a very important article, thanks for sharing!

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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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