When we hear the word menstruation, the first associations we make are with its tabooed nature and myths that surround the subject. Yet, most of us would not be here to tell the tale if not for a menstruating person in our families.
In recent times individuals in the health sector, SRHR and NGOs working on gender-based issues have become aware of the significance of menstrual health management and the severity of period poverty in our country. More people have opened up to conversations about menstrual health and hygiene. It has even entered mainstream dialogue on public health with the Indian Government’s plans on providing low cost, sanitary pads under its Menstrual Hygiene Scheme.
Besides creating access to products, focusing on raising menstrual literacy helps menstruators become more cognizant of their own body and its processes. For instance, workshops conducted by Paint It Red have helped 71% of its beneficiaries leave behind their feeling of shame at periods.
These workshops also segue into a distribution of sustainable, period kits. This includes 3 reusable cloth pads that can be washed, dried and reused. The workshop and its module on product analysis helps waylay tabooed perceptions of reusable cloth, with 85% of Paint It Red’s beneficiaries having used the sustainable products.
Ultimately, these workshops help raise body literacy and enable women, girls and others who have periods, to make informed decisions for their own healthcare needs. These knowledge gaps have become easier to fill in the present, given menstruation has become a mainstream discussion in public healthcare. However, this may not have been true even a decade ago.
This is an account of how 3 generations of menstruators in my family experienced menarche and how it shaped the experiences of each generation. I’ll start with my grandmother who did not know much about menstruation, before she had her first period. At 15, my grandmother started menstruating in the early 70s, a time when there was little to no knowledge about disposable pads in India.
Even today, according to BBC Asia, only around 36% of India’s 355 million menstruators use period products. In many parts of our country, menstruators rely on old rags. In severe cases, they may rely on sand, leaves or even ash. Studies on menstrual practices in India have reported that at least 14% of Indian women have had vaginal infections due to poor period care and management (Pg.37)
In the kitchen, making rotis, my grandmother felt a wetness but she didn’t pay any heed to it partly because she didn’t have much knowledge about periods. By the time she realised what had happened her skirt and underwear were blood stained. With no one at home to talk to, my grandmother ended up using a kitchen rag. She stayed like that the whole evening till her elder sister got home.
Her elder sister taught her how to use a menstrual cloth, but menstruation was not easy to manage. My grandmother tells me that the cloth would get hard over a period of time because of dried blood. It would also feel uncomfortable because heavy flow days meant layering more pieces of cloth on top of each other. Going to school became an ordeal since she and her sister would walk to the building and the cloth scraped the insides of their thighs. They would also fear the possibility of leaks because menstrual clothes would seldom have strong absorbance.
My grandmother’s experiences with menstruation made her resolute in her wish to make sure that her daughters knew about periods and the process. She prepared them to be able to manage menstruation.
My mother got her periods in the early 90s, right when sanitary pads had started entering the Indian market. Whisper was launched in the year 1989, but as a fairly new product, it wasn’t common for people to use it. Both my mother and my aunt got their periods at home and used a pad to manage their flow. They were also fed sweets at the “occasion”. In India, the day a child starts menstruating marks their transition to “womanhood”. It signifies their ability to bear children and the start of their journey to motherhood. The first day of menarche is one where young menstruators are showered with gifts and celebrated.
I was in 8th grade when I got my period. My school gave us the “period talk” when we were in 9th or 10th grade. By that time almost everyone had gotten their periods. However, societal rules dictated us not to speak of menstruation. All I knew about periods was that you bled.
The first day I got my periods is etched in my memory. A half-day at school, I felt something sludgy and warm in my panties. I informed my friend who suggested checking whether I had gotten my periods. However, my teacher declined, asking me to stay put because the school was ending in an hour.
When I reached home and told my grandmother what had happened, she asked me to go change. While I knew what Periods were, I wasn’t prepared to look at my blood-drenched underwear. I felt dirty and unclean as associations of menstrual blood with impurity started to take over my thoughts. Naturally, I cried and cursed at the gods for making me go through this. The added pressure of not knowing exactly how a pad was used added added to my embarrassment. For the most part, menarche was exhausting for me, physically, mentally and emotionally.
In the evening, my parents got back home with chocolate pastries for me. I am sure my father had wanted to comfort me when he handed me the pastry and said “Happy Birthday”, with a smile on his face. But, I only felt humiliated and weird. I didn’t want my father to know that I was menstruating. We laugh about it now and “Happy Birthday” is code for when I want sanitary pads.
Today, the age of menarche has been reduced to as low as 8 years of age. Schools are also mandated to hold workshops on ‘Puberty’ and ‘Menstruation’. However, our instincts to curb long discussions on menstruation with young children still persist. I understand that behavioural changes take time to make a mark in society. Nevertheless, it is important that we prepare children for the changes their bodies will go through during puberty. It is imperative that they know about the products they can use to help manage menstruation and the best practices they should follow to ensure good menstrual health.