The mountains seem serene and unique, they too have a quite similar story as the rest of India

The common perception is that issues around menstruation are supposed to be talked about by women. Men usually shy away from these conversations as it is meant to be irrelevant to them. This might have been the case for me, working on spring recharge in Chirag, this topic of inquiry is twice removed from my line of work. But through this year at the fellowship, I have had a few encounters, which centered around menstruation. It is these encounters which have pushed me to write this blog.

My first brush with menstruation during my time at Chirag, was on a visit to the Pinder valley during the early days of the fellowship in April. Menstruation taboos are common throughout most of the Indian subcontinent and the Pinder Valley was no exception, where women and girls are treated as impure beings during their menstruation time. Karishma, a computer teacher who was posted in a Government Upper Primary School by Chirag, noticed that many of the girls in the school do not come to school during their menstruation time because of these taboos associated with impurity, so she went and spoke to the parents of these children and convinced them to send their girls to school. But the discrimination was not just at home, a big issue was also how these girls were treated at schools by other students, other students never used to play with them or even touch them. She intervened when she saw this and convinced the other children not behave in a discriminatory manner with the menstruating girls, and now according to her all the kids sit together and play together with menstruating girls.

Karshima in front of the School UPS Thoor, Bhageshwar

When I paid a visit to my friend Kavya who works at an organisation called Gene Campaign which lies at a stone throw away from Chirag, I noticed that a young girl was drawing a beautiful floral pattern on Kavya’s hand. The young girl was the daughter of the maid who does the daily chores for Kavya and her roommate Sakshi. Just as I arrived the young girl announced her departure “Didi ab mein chalti hoon”, I somehow sensed that she left due to my presence. After she left I suggested to my friend that she should have gifted the young girl something in return for the beautiful pattern she drew on her hand. But Kavya’s response surprised me, she explained that the girl who is now 16, did the drawing as a thank you gesture to her for buying her a bunch sanitary pads for the first time in her life.

It struck me, the girl is 16 and this was the first time that someone brought her a pair of sanitary pads, before this what she did was just use an old dirty cloth during her period. While I read about this in many articles and watching Padman, seeing this in real life was different.

Since my older sibling was a male, whatever little I know about menstruation is through conversations with my female friends, cousins and a handful of articles that I’ve read. Most of my friend’s that I’ve had a conversation regarding menstruation have told me that when they had their first period they were ‘educated’ by their mothers or some other female relatives on how to handle this ‘strange’ and ‘new’ phenomena that’s happening to their bodies and more importantly on how to use a sanitary pad. I had always assumed that this was something that happened in all families across all social classes and communities. But in this young girl’s case her mother, never had a conversation about menstruation with her and so she had to ‘figure things’ on her own, creating a sense of shame to be associated with this, as she also did not have have an elder female sibling to guide her. Her mother told Kavya that this was the case for her as well as her as no one ever spoke to her about this and she managed to control the bleeding by buying cheap men’s underwear for Rs. 10 to control the bleeding, and she re-washed and used the same clothes for many years to come.

“We can consider letting a woman enter the temple if a machine is invented to test whether she is menstruating or not”

Head Priest, Sabarimala Temple, India

In a situation similar to her daughter she also was the only female child in her family. Later I got to know after an hour-long conversation with Kavya that in the villages in the Kumaon region and in many parts of the country, their mothers never have a conversation with their daughters about menstruation and they are left to figure out things all by themselves. Furthermore, she also told me that in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh where she worked earlier its common for women use leaves and mud while menstruating. This in contrast to Kerala where I hail from, where a woman’s first period in celebrated, at least among Hindus, nevertheless the stigma over menstruation still exists there as I remember a lady once asked me to deposit a coin on a temple donation box since she was on her period. Not to forget, the famous Sabarimala temple episode where the head priest once famously said that “we can consider letting a woman enter the temple if a machine is invented to test whether she is menstruating or not”.

When we look at the surface this seems like a problem that could be solved by more awareness but that is very difficult as the stigma is deeply rooted in our brahmanical patriarchal society where a handful of men once decided that a menstruating woman is impure, while forgetting this so-called ‘impurity’ is the reason that they were born in the first place. This stigma continued over to policy, the Indian government used to tax sanitary pads till as recently as 2018.

The lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene products are one of the biggest barriers to education for girls, who are often forced to stay at home due to a lack of access to clean hygiene products, while also facing stigma and a lack of toilets in schools. Periods are among the leading factors for girls to drop out of school India where four out of five women and girls are estimated to have no access to sanitary pads.

Read: How hitting puberty affects girls’ schooling

My predominant thought as I end this piece is this; this young girl might have had the privilege of having a conversation about menstrual hygiene with Kavya and we might think she’s lucky to get a bunch of sanitary but once my friend leaves for Delhi in a few weeks, she may go back to using old clothes again as sanitary pads are still unaffordable to those who earn around 3000 rupees per month. So now what?

I’ll end my blog here with readers to ponder with this question as I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to suggest quick-fix solutions to a social problem that I have very little knowledge and zero personal experience about. As I am sure there are 1000s of other women and men who are already working on it.

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