Yes, It is That Time of the Month!

Yes, It is That Time of the Month!

I still remember the date. 8 February 1995. Not because it was my favourite cousin’s wedding but because it was my ‘first’ day. I remember standing in the toilet of my aunt’s house and under the dim light of the zero watt bulb see that stain on my dress. I was a 13-year-old spoilt brat. I didn’t pay much attention in class and perhaps that is why I had to clue of what was happening to me. The house was packed with relatives and buzzing with the excitement of welcoming the latest member of the family. I mustered some courage and called my sister and told her albeit in very hushed tones. She seemed a tad worried and asked me not to come out of the toilet. I could hear and a few other of my cousins talk “I didn’t bring any” "I have cloth” “who will go the market now” “congratulations she is a woman now”.

After waiting for what seemed like eternity, my sister came back with a string and a cotton cloth pad, neatly stitched in layers. She explained what to do. I was finally able to come out of the toilet. It felt like l had been in there for hours. Anyhow, outside all I saw was faces, smiling and yet telling me “we know”. I just didn’t know then that that look for the rest of my menstruating life would mean “Ah, that time of the month”.

Thankfully that day the looks stopped after some time. In a little while I had put all of it behind me and started playing with my cousins just like any normal day. I was happy that my mum did not scold me for this ‘stain episode’ and she went about her usual work. An aunt did approach her, “Tell her not to jump…she is not supposed to play like this”. Thankfully people got busy with the wedding and I was no longer the centre of attention. I played. The cloth pad was however, making me uncomfortable. I kept folding it to keep it from leaking. Once the cloth, I was using, was drenched, I spent most of my time in the toilet or just sitting alone somewhere. No one came with a second set of cloth or anything.

No one explained anything to me. No one spoke about Periods like it was a normal bodily function.

No one spoke about it, period.

I think people expected me to know and take care of it by myself. But I was just a 13-year-old.

Twenty-five years later nothing seems to have changed. People still don’t talk about periods and it is still considered a taboo. Biases in the society around periods and a girl having her periods — whether it is not allowing them to enter kitchen, or touch pickle, or be a part of any religious gathering  (which as kids was an excuse for catching up as friends) — restricts a teenager or a woman to live a normal life. Right from her first periods, it is drilled in to the girl that, ‘now she is a grown up and she should keep her distance from boys’. It almost always crosses a girl’s mind that she would have been better off being a boy, instead.

In January this year, at a workshop with youth and civil society organisations on WASH, which included Menstrual Hygiene Management (among other things) in January this year, the discussions revealed how even today we continue to live with the taboo and try to blot it out of our lives often at the risk of our health. A bunch of girls said that they ate medicines to delay periods during festivals. It is unfair because they are forced to do this because of societal pressure and unnatural because it causes hormonal imbalance, which in the long run can be detrimental to their health.

Even today the awareness programmes on menstrual hygiene management are conducted in high school at a stage when girls are already menstruating. These programmes are only for girls; boys are never included. This paints periods as a woman’s issue and its management as her responsibility, and hers alone. In rural parts or semi-urban slums, a girl has little or no access to functional toilets, regular water supply, soap/hand wash, private space for changing, and clean sanitary materials.

There are homes/culture where girls and women are not allowed to take a bath when they are menstruating and are asked to make less use of soap, thus pushing them towards uncleanliness and filth. In some     cultures, women are not allowed to burn the used sanitary pad (cloth or otherwise) because a belief is peddled that it will lead to infertility. In many cases washing the cloth isn't allowed and if it is, it isn’t allowed to be dried in the open. And it is under these circumstances that she goes through her periods every month.

Then there is the issue of availability of sanitary material. We have all heard of instances of women using everything from sand, to grass, to cloth as their sanitary pad. In rural areas, there is a big issue of the non-availability and affordability of clean cotton cloth and sanitary pads. And if it is, buying it is like a top secret mission — you don’t name it and you get it all wrapped in newspaper or black polythene, to keep it from the prying eyes. To avoid this ordeal, girls and women end up using cheap synthetic sarees, which is not the right material to be used as an absorbent. All these have health impacts on women.

But then after all it is her problem and managing it, her responsibility!

During the workshop and even other times during our interaction with youth, it was evident that there continues to be a stigma attached to periods, people are still not comfortable talking about it (particularly in the rural set up), little girls have to deal with this change in her body at a very young age and often on their own, she has to bear immense psychological pressure from the very first day her periods start because we haven’t yet been able to figure out how to explain these things to her or provide the support she needs.

It is time we started talking about it, involving both boys and girls in this conversation; train teachers to explain it to students; make sanitary pads available at public places such as hotels, schools & colleges, hospitals, cinema halls, and offices; broach the issue of menstrual health hygiene at the age of 9 or 10 and held the child look at it as a bodily function and not something disgusting; and most importantly break the taboo around it.

It is time to make sure that, “That time of the month” is not a ‘burden’ the girl or a woman is left to bear on her own.

 

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