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“I Was Told It Was Dirty Blood”: I Spoke To Three Women About Periods

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Period poverty is a global issue that affects young girls, women, transgender men and non-binary people. According to UNICEF, around 1.8 billion people menstruate every month, and yet they don’t have the access to a dignified, hygienic and healthy period which is vital to human life.

Around the globe and in our country, girls drop out of school because they start menstruating and don’t have access to sanitary napkins or private space in schools to use them. This makes going out of the house impossible.

A large section of Indian menstruators still don’t have access to basic sanitary products such as napkins. Representational image.

They feel embarrassed about it and have to eventually give up on their studies.

Menstruation is a different experience for everyone and quite challenging too. I spoke to three women: 50-year-old Susheela, 30-year-old Reena, and 16-year-old Mahek.

These women are from different generations and low-income groups. I tried to reflect upon their experiences of menstruation and understand their knowledge, access to sanitary napkins and general outlook towards periods.

Maseera Khan: What do you call periods?

Susheela: (giggles) we call periods “mahina” (month).

MK: When did you get your first period, do you remember?

S: Yes, yes, I remember. I was 13, no… 14 years old. Yes, 14.

MK: Did you know about periods before you got it for the first time?

S: No, not at all (starts laughing).

MK: So did you learn about it anytime soon?

S: No, I did not know why it happens until 16. For almost two years or so, I asked my sisters and my friends about it. I asked them what I should be doing, etc. I did not ask my mother (laughs loudly).

MK: What did your friends tell you?

S: My friends were elder than me. They had been getting their periods for two to three years by then, and they knew what to do, and how to do it. They helped me with using a cloth. But, that’s all that they knew too.

Earlier, we did not have these (pads)…

MK: So you have always used cloth?

S: Yes, beta. I always used cloth. I have never used a pad.

MK: What about your daughters, do they use a pad?

S: Yes, my daughters use pads.

MK: According to you, what and when does one menstruate?

S: It happens to every girl at the age of 14-16 years… happens to every girl. It is important.

MK: What are the general facts or myths you have heard on menstruation?

S: When I got my period, I asked why it happens. They told me it’s a “ladies’ thing” and it is important. I asked about it… I did not know anything (chuckles). I did not learn any myths or false information around it.

MK: Did anyone tell you that it’s a disease?

S: No… no. They told me to maintain hygiene at this time; it can spread diseases if you don’t stay clean. Use Dettol, in case you don’t have it, use soap. Back in the day, Dettol was not common either.

For five days, clean yourself with soap and keep it separately. This is what I learnt and followed (chortles). I haven’t had a period in 18 years now. My uterus has been removed.

MK: Oh, why?

S: I got diseases because of using this (cloth). I got blisters, so I had to get the uterus removed. None of my sisters-in-law told me about pads, that these are available and that you should use them… didn’t tell me to use pads.

My daughters have used pads from the beginning. I always bought pads and told them to use it. It hardly costs ₹20-30 a month… do packets hi toh lane hote hain (you only have to buy two packs). I buy two packs, hardly ₹60 a month.

MK: Do you think young individuals should be taught about menstruation in school?

S: Yes, definitely, girls should be taught about it in school. There are a lot of girls who don’t know about it. Because, they get periods so they should be educated about pads and what happens at a certain age. So, girls should be taught at schools.

I tell everyone about pads, even in my neighbourhood. There’s a girl who lives across us. She said, “Didi, humare saath aisa aisa hua… hum ne apni mummy se nahi pucha sharam ke maare (Sister, so and so has happened to me… I am too embarrassed to talk to my mother about it).”

She got her period for the first time. So, I told her that, “Beta, you do one thing, buy underwear…” She didn’t know… who will get her pads? I told my daughter to give her a few pads. Later on, she told her mother and asked her to buy pads. Now, she uses them.

MK: Do you feel shy talking about this and that it comes in the way of learning about periods?

S: Yes, (laughs) even I stopped talking when a male member passed by. Sharam toh aati hai. Nahi aani chahiye (I am embarrassed, although I shouldn’t be). Nowadays, we see everything on the television, but we still feel shy.

Maseera Khan: When did you get your first period?

Reena: I get it on the first of every month.

MK: And, at what age did you get it for the first time?

R: I was 12-13 years old.

MK: Were you aware of periods before you got it?

R: No, I wasn’t.

MK: So what did you do when it happened?

R: I told my mummy, “Dekho, yeh kya jaa raha hai laal laal (Look, what’s flowing, it’s red in colour)” (laughs nervously). In the village, when we get this, we have to stay in a room for seven days.

Then, my mother explained it to me, “Aisa aisa karte hain beta (this is how you go about it, child)”. Back then, we didn’t even have pads… had to use cloth only.

MK: What do you use when you’re on your period?

R: I use a pad.

MK: According to you, what and when does one menstruate?

R: My mummy said: “Beta, this happens to a woman, indefinitely.” It starts around 12-13 years of age.

MK: What are the general facts or myths you have heard on menstruation?

R: None, really. I did not even know something like this exists.

MK: So, your daughter is going to school, right?

R: Yes, she is in the sixth standard.

MK: Do you think young individuals like Swati should be taught about menstruation in school?

R: Mmmm… (Mulls). Everyone says that they tell you everything in school about things like these… it is okay, I guess.

MK: Does she know about it right now? Would you mind if I speak to her about it?

R: No, not yet. She’ll turn twelve on Diwali. She is eleven now. She is small, if you say something then she’ll get curious, and then a child feels scared too, no?

Then she will ask me, “Mummy, di kya baat kar rahi thi? Kya hota hai woh? (Mom, what was she talking about? What is this?)” Now, this is a natural phenomenon. As and when she gets it, I will have to tell her.

MK: When you go back and your husband asks you what were we talking about, what will you tell him? Do you share such things with him?

R: (laughs) Yes… yes, I have to do it. He’s also human. He knows everything.

Maseera Khan: I want to talk to you about periods, hope you’re comfortable with that?

Mahek: Yes, yes, sure.

MK: When did you get your first period?

M: I was 13 years old.

MK: Were you in the village or here in Bhopal?

M: I was in Bhopal, living at Lalghati with a family.

MK: So, who was the first person you reached out to for help?

M: There was a girl who used to live there too. She told the daughter of the madam I was living with.

MK: Did you know about periods before you got it?

M: No… no. And even when I did, I went on for two days without telling anyone about it, hoping for it to stop.

MK: According to you, why and when does one menstruate?

M: I don’t know much but I know that our body releases bad blood. Our system gets cleansed. Some people get it at 13, some at 11 or 12… But, not before ten, I guess.

MK: Who told you this?

M: I asked the daughter why it happens. She only told me that this is dirty blood.

MK: Did she give you pads to use?

M: No, she didn’t. I used cloth for a while. Then, gradually, I saved up money and bought pads for myself.

MK: So, you did it on your own. How did you learn to use a pad?

M: I followed the instructions written on the wrapper.

MK: According to you, what and when does one menstruate?

M: Mmm… No, nothing really. We didn’t talk about it much.

MK: Do you think young individuals should be taught about menstruation in school?

M: Teachers must talk to girls about it.

 All the women I spoke to were quite sporty and welcoming. So, it’s safe to say that it’s not taboo to discuss periods in their circle. It is probably because they live in an urban area and are independent women.

I was over the moon that none of them thought of periods as a disability, but I will admit that it is saddening that all of them didn’t understand the basics of it. When asked about why it happens all the respondents said that it is important, it happens to all women, and that is all.

They do not comprehend that it happens because one’s not impregnated and the uterus lining sheds. They didn’t mention anything about reproduction and seem unaware of this aspect. Or, maybe the older ones were aware, but did not know how to put it into words.

Menstruators need to be taught about menstruation, comprehensively, in schools, colleges and the like.  Representational image.

The youngest of the respondents, Mahek, said that she thought it was bad blood. She learnt it from an educated person, which is quite shocking. The oldest of all the respondents, Susheela, responded without any inhibitions. Maybe, with age comes a certain acceptance.

She told me that she had to get her uterus removed and blames using the cloth for it. She believes that because she used cloth on her period, it caused her a lot of health problems. Millions of women like her contract diseases because of a lack of sanitary pads.

On the bright side, the three women were aware of pads and advocate using them. And, Mahek was brave enough to make this decision for herself, without really caring about others’ opinions. She was not living with her mother when she got her period and had to take someone else’s help.

It is an emotionally challenging time for all of us and yet she remained resilient. She saved up money from her earnings and went out to buy pads on her own. This is what sets young people apart from previous generations. They are willing to take risks and explore.

But, the complacency around the lack of information on periods is not a good sign. The women were talking about their bodies, and yet, they knew so little about it. Maybe, they really don’t know or maybe they do, but prefer not to talk.

It is unsettling when someone like Reena tells you that she was told to remain in a room for seven days. Periods are a hard enough time for all of us without the mental torture. Imagine what a young girl must go through when they are isolated every month for a basic bodily process.

This is why so many young, bright girls are subjected to having to drop out of schools, give up on their education and dreams. All of which are utterly basic to human life.

On the surface, the attitude around menstruation is healthy, but the amount of knowledge isn’t wholesome. They know titbits and try to piece whatever information they have together.

I find it unacceptable that they have been deprived of truly “knowing their bodies”. They really don’t comprehend the monthly cycle and its biology. We have come a long way, but believe me, we have an even longer way to go.

So, learn about your bodies, talk to others who might need your help and educate them about their right to menstruate with their dignity.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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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