New Delhi: Lower backache, shooting abdominal pain, cramps, emotional ickiness, fatigue and nausea—if you are a woman reading this, you probably know where the conversation is going. It is a monthly ritual but women are not expected to speak about it. It is part of a woman’s life—her biology—but it is an ‘unclean’ secret that women are expected to be ashamed of.
Women purchase sanitary napkins but make sure these are wrapped in black polythene bags or an old newspaper to avoid undue attention. Shoving sanitary napkins up the sleeves on the way to the bathroom so no one knows it’s that time of the month is a usual occurrence.
And adding to the awkwardness, Indian advertisers continue displaying blue liquids squirting out of pipettes on pads, because how can they show blood is red in colour?
Since periods affect only women, there is a general ignorance and a convenient self-deception which propagates a culture of silence around the subject by all genders as if periods don’t even exist. (Remember feminist author Gloria Steinem’s 1978 satire piece in Ms magazine titled If Men Could Menstruate. She asked: “What would happen, for instance, if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event..."
But two days ago, news came out that government schools in Delhi will hold period talks where questions around menstruation will be answered by an NGO Sachhi Saheli under a campaign called “Break the Bloody taboo". The NGO which started with imparting these lessons in slums and some government and private schools in East Delhi, will expand its reach now, after a two-month-long pilot project they conducted for the Delhi government.
As of now, the lessons will be for girls only because as Dr Surbhi Singh, a gynecologist, who is leading the team from the NGO, says: “Girls are not even comfortable in speaking to me, or in that case, even among themselves. If we bring in boys, it will be more like a lecture, and the girls will become completely silent, and that will kill the purpose of the period talk."
The idea is to talk about menstruation, bust the myths around the subject, answer queries in the form of stories that young girls can relate to. The sessions will begin with answering questions as simple as when do you start menstruating? How much flow is too much? Why are periods painful? Is it alright to touch pickle or go to the temple when you are menstruating? Can you go for a head bath when you have periods?
For some, these questions might sound redundant, but this campaign is good news, particularly so because menstruation taboos still have firm roots in the Indian society. A report brought out by Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation working around women’s welfare and rights, has observed that 70% of mothers in India consider menstruation “dirty"—hence perpetuating a culture of shame and ignorance.
There are places and religions, where while on her period a girl or a woman is considered to be impure, and so worship in the temple or any other religious place is forbidden. There are states where menstruating girls are not allowed to cook or serve.
In fact, according to a 2016 study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), eight of ten Indian girls are not allowed to enter religious shrines when they are on their period; six of ten girls are not allowed to touch food in the kitchen, and three of 10 are asked to sleep in a separate room. Funded by the UNICEF and published in the British Medical Journal, the study used data about 97,070 girls, collected between 2000 and 2015, as part of 138 studies on menstrual practices in India.
This taboo around periods, inadequate sanitary facilities, poor health education, are reasons why girls and women are denied things as basic as clean, affordable menstrual materials (Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene).
In urban India, 43%-88% of girls use reusable cloth during menstruation, yet they are often washed without soap or clean water. And of the 355 million menstruating girls and women in the country, just 12% use sanitary napkins. This deprivation of basic resources required during periods, has become one of the reasons for drop outs. In rural India, one in five girls drops out of school after they start menstruating, according to research by Nielsen and Plan India.
Delhi isn’t the first state to have begun the period talk. In October 2016, the Kozhikode Government Medical College union joined hands with an NGO Red Cycle to impart lessons in topics on gender sensitivity including menstruation to boy students, along with girls, in Kozhikode.
In April the same year, Punjab came up with an ambitious new scheme to provide sanitary napkins every month to 6.83 lakh girl students in all government schools to improve school attendance. The scheme, under the ‘Swastha Kanya Yojana’, is the first ever in Punjab that will cover every girl child from class 6 to 12. Also, it is the first when a budgetary allocation of ₹ 24 crore has been proposed for sanitary napkins only.
While websites like Menstrupedia and other campaigns like #periodforchange and #HappyToBleed are trying to challenge the stigma around menstruation, a move to have the period-talk right at the school level, can definitely act as a step forward in sensitizing boys, as well as making women comfortable about this natural aspect of their lives.