As an adolescent girl I don’t really remember having any conversation about menstruation with anyone apart from my mother (in whispers and only when I am alone), and sometimes with friends in school. I had so many questions but no one to go to. Since I’m from the non-internet age, I sadly could not Google this information and had to depend on people and books around me. All the myth blasting around my menstrual cycle really happened when I reached college, thanks to my teachers and all the wonderful books I had access to.
In hindsight, I understand that I had two kinds of questions – one which related more to the science behind what was happening to my body and the other related to all the do’s and don’t and other such things which suddenly came up after my periods. The silence around this issue was deafening and whatever was shared left no scope for a discussion. I also don’t remember anybody ever had any conversation with the boys from our class.
For example, when I was in class 7 or 8, I remember companies coming to talk to us about sanitary napkins. They would just explain how and why to use the napkins, while not addressing the biology aspect. During these sessions, the boys would have been sent out to play. It felt like they thought the boys did not need to be a part of these conversations. After the sessions, the boys were always very curious to know what was shared with us and we are left feeling uncomfortable. No one told us that this was a natural process and that there was nothing to be ashamed off.
However, in the last few years things have changed. I have seen a lot of conversations happening around menstruation in online spaces, focused on removing shame around the issue, getting boys/ men into the conversation and talking about the use and promotion of hygienic sanitary product options. The internet has become an interesting space where women and girls can share what they go through during those 5-6 days, while maintaining their anonymity. I did not have these options and so I had to wait to get access to correct information about a process which would happen in my body every month.
It was while I was traveling for work and meeting women from various backgrounds, that I understood that there are certain cultural and traditional practices which surround menstruation. There is still very limited conversation happening regarding the norms that surround menstruation. We need to have a dialogue about these practices that, on one hand, celebrates a girl moving towards adulthood but, on the other hand, restricts and promotes discrimination of menstruating girls and women. These norms sometimes makes women more vulnerable to abuse and violence.
Here are list of a few norms/practices that I have come across:
- In parts of India, the first period is a matter of celebration. It is to announce to the world that your daughter is on her way to womanhood (Hint: basically is fertile and can reproduce). The family organizes a puja and call relatives for a feast. But this celebration is only for a day. The next time when the girl get her periods, she is shunned and put in a separate room, making her feel dirty and unwanted.
- A menstruating women is also often keep in a separate room, sometimes outside of the village, as she is considered ‘impure’. These women/ girls are very vulnerable in such a situation and often face sexual assault. Since the perpetrators are well aware of their vulnerability, such a situation makes it more likely for them to abuse the girl.
- With the onset of puberty and the menstrual cycle, there is a dramatic change in how family and community start viewing girls. Her ‘chastity’, which has been a concern since the girl was born, becomes even more important. This leads to them curbing her mobility, the choices of clothes she can wear and controlling her physical activity, especially playing so-called ‘rough games’ along with her interaction with the opposite sex.
- On a trip to Bihar, we were talking about early marriage as the practice is very common in the state. One of the participants shared that, in certain communities, it is believed that a girl needs to be married before her first period, otherwise her father would have committed a sin! Why? Because the girl will have to have children in the future.
Sometimes, girls who mature earlier with the onset of puberty might also be pushed into early marriage without really taking in concern her desire for a relationship. It has also been observed that a young woman who is going to get married is often asked to prepone or postpone her period dates.
- Many women and girls go through very painful periods with mood swings and heavy bleeding. They are asked to ignore the discomfort and pain go about doing their assigned tasks/ activities as if everything is ‘normal’. There is no conversation around PMS and this is also visible in the advertising promoting the use of sanitary pads, which shows girls jumping around during their periods. Because of the normalization, we also see the hesitation of women in availing leaves during her periods in organizations where it is allowed.
- Shopkeepers often sell sanitary napkins in black plastic bags, as if they are illicit or impure substances. For many young women, this often cements the fact that sanitary napkins (and by extension, periods) are ‘shameful’
We see that most of these cultural norms and belief have an underlying factor of the feeling of uncleanliness, shame and impurity, making women feel inferior and weaker. On one hand, it is celebrated, but on the other is the fact that the process which facilitates this is demeaning for women. It also involves control on the sexuality of the woman and the choices she makes in her life. There are contradictions as well: such as the expectation to do all the housework without complaining and yet also not ‘allowed’ to do certain things – like going to a temple.
Periods also come with their fair share of myths and misconceptions around them, which also feed into the creation of the above norms and practices. Here are a few:
- If a menstruating woman touches pickle, it will become bad as her body emits a ‘smell’ or ‘ray’ which turns preserved food bad.
- A menstruating woman/ girl is unclean and should not enter the temple or touch holy books.
- A menstruating woman/girl has to have a bath the moment her periods start, no matter what time of the day it is or what season.
- A woman/girl is purified after her periods start, but only after she has a bath and washes her hair on the fourth day of their cycle. Only after this, is she allowed to enter holy places or sit with others to eat.
- A menstruating girl cannot enter the kitchen and cook.
- Menstruating women are not allowed to water certain plants which are considered holy or are used for cooking food, or are offered to the gods.
- Many women are often forced to follow strict dietary restrictions during menstruation, such as avoiding sour food like curd, tamarind, and pickles. It is believed that such food will ‘disturb’ or stop the menstrual flow.
Clearly a solution is needed, but how. The long answer is: it won’t be easy. We need a multi-sectoral approach where we talk about menstruation, where the focus should be both on science and also working towards removing the various myths around it. The need is to have comprehensive sexuality education for our adolescents, so that they can be given correct and scientific information about their bodies to deal with the changes in their lives.
Menstruation is nothing but a biological phenomenon, and everyone, including adolescent girls and women, should understand that they have the power of procreation only because of this biological process.