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“Stop Disregarding Period Pain As ‘Normal’, It Is Not!”

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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.

Representational image only. Image by Rupsa Nag.

I had normalized cramps for the longest time. My mother told me all about periods. However, having no experience of cramps, when I complained about my pain, she told me it will happen anyway and I should distract myself. Every time it pained, I would pinch my big toe until it turned red hoping it was a distraction good enough to make me forget the pain (of course that never happened).

Despite being the same phenomenon, the experiences of individuals across different times and spaces, are unique. So when we speak of period positivity, it does not mean glossing over the pain but opening up intersections for multiple experiences to come forth. Normalization of pain and invalidating others’ pain occurs because prejudice causes period-talks to irk menstruators themselves. Menstruators experiencing PMS and PMDD are asked to ‘toughen up’.

Talking about her experience, Ambalika Dutta said, “‘While men think we are being dramatic, older women usually say they’ve been through the same and we should learn to bear with it.”’

Repression enforces the act of toughening up, a lonely experience that often makes one un/consciously disregard or resent something to a point of denial that stifles acknowledgement. Prejudices, thus, quell solidarity. They have another purpose which I will return to, in conclusion.

For now, let’s take a look at the major emotional and physical pains of menstruation:

Perimenstrual Syndrome and Premenstrual Dysmorphic Disorder

Not everyone experiences PMS but most do. Menstruators experience various kinds and magnitudes of physical and emotional pain from the time PMS starts and during the period. Depending on the severity, for some, it continues a few days after the period has ended. Calling it perimenstrual instead of premenstrual is more accurate since ‘pre’ implies that it ends once the period begins which isn’t always the case.

Perimenstrual syndrome
What is Perimenstrual Syndrome?

 ‘Are you PMSing?’ is often used to nullify a menstruator’s argument. PMS feelings are valid. Hormones only magnify expressions. They’re inexplicable is because the spike is sudden, combined with, and catalyzed by physical pain. The degree of pain also causes mood swings. For people living with anxiety, PTSD, insomnia, panic attacks, and other mental health issues, dealing with the excess that periods bring is very triggering and PMDD is more commonly experienced by them. Neglecting PMS automatically means neglecting PMDD.

PMDD is the debilitating form of PMS that can last lifelong. It obstructs daily life, work, social interactions, personal relations, and more. Here are some symptoms of PMDD

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Depression
  • Intense anger and conflict within and without
  • Anxiety
  • Reduced interest in usual activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constant fatigue
  • Feeling out of control
  • Change in appetite
  • Sleep issues
  • Severe cramps and bloating
  • Breast tenderness, pain, swelling
  • Headaches
  • Joint or muscle pains
  • Hot flashes

If you have five or more symptoms, please consult your ob-gyn. Symptoms arrive a week before menstruation and stay until a few days after. 

“‘I often feel like curling up in a corner and just sitting there for the rest of my life or slowly melting away. I feel angry at everything and everyone, including myself. This begins a few days or weeks before my period starts along with slight pain in the abdomen. That’s how I know my period is about to start. My tolerance level is zero during this time,” says S.Jose*

There are more than 10 million annual cases in India and yet most people are unaware of it. Out of the 24 survey respondents, 13 didn’t know about PMDD at all.  

Menstrual cramps and varying levels of pain

Cramps are real and experienced in varying degrees. Just because cramps ‘happen’, it shouldn’t be endured. Being normalized, people don’t try relieving it. Cramps (secondary dysmenorrhoea) can also be symptoms of underlying complications, so it’s important to not neglect them. People with PCOS, cysts, endometriosis experience extremely painful periods.

What is Dysmenorrhoea?

I asked 24 menstruators about their dysmenorrhoea experience. For some, it’s non-existent or short-term like Pausali writes, It doesn’t affect me much. I take a half-day rest as it happens only on the first day.’ For others, it can be debilitating as Soumi Mukherjee who has PCOS says she experiences ‘Immense cramps and can’t walk due to pain’.

Sima Ghosh* who also suffers from PCOS writes, ‘Irregular periods imply that the PMS sets in at very odd times. I get cramps without periods for weeks.’Sudipta Ghosh suffers from secondary dysmenorrhoea. She has had three C-section surgeries and experiences cramps severe enough to make her faint.

S.Jose* says, “I feel like my entire body is on fire and a 100 knives are stabbing my tummy at the same time. I feel fatigued, bloated, nauseous. I take painkillers and also use a hot water bag kept on my lower tummy/back and sometimes under my foot. Sometimes the pain is relieved when my feet warm up.”

Tanurima Chanda says she sleeps ‘all day with a heat pack, only if I don’t have a commitment I absolutely cannot back out from. I go through a tough space mentally.’ Urna Chakraborty also experiences debilitating cramps and Riya Roy writes how, in certain months, she is unable to move at times as it severely pains from the abdomen to the knee—‘It affects my work sometimes and also my mood as it makes me feel sick.’

Surasree Banerjee’s ovarian cyst makes cramps more severe for her. Gangabhavani M. experiences mild fever with abdomen, leg, and body pain two days before menstruation.

Medicines, hot or cold compress, relief patches, period drinks/eatables, sexual pleasure are some of the things that help alleviate primary dysmenorrhoea. Secondary dysmenorrhoea stems from underlying health complications so it’s essential to pay heed to pain and get treated.

A pain that can be stopped should simply be stopped and not endured

Baba always inspired me to learn about and care for my body. He used to push me to get cramps-relief medicines from our local Homeopathy doctor; something I kept deferring because I’d internalized Ma’s advice. That’s the other purpose of stigma—to stop the flow of information by punctuating it with guilty-silences.

I was at my class-10 physics tuition on a Sunday morning when regular period-fatigue suddenly escalated. I felt dizzy; yet couldn’t bring myself to tell my male teacher and only confessed to his wife. Shortly after, I fainted. My father took me home. The incident never repeated itself, thankfully. And Baba consulted a doctor regarding my cramps. 

Prescribing a medicine, he told my parents, “Why did you make this such a big deal that it could not get the attention it deserved? A pain that can be stopped should simply be stopped and not endured. If tolerated, it could give rise to further complications.”

Funny it could apply to all spheres of life, right?

*Names changed

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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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