Few weeks ago on call with my father, I found myself telling him, “Oh, nothing much, Mother Nature is here,” this is after I told him my stomach is hurting and he asked me what’s wrong? He told me to take care and then quickly gave the phone to my mother. This happens almost every month, we have code words like mother nature for our menstrual cycle.
I got my first period after my 7th grade final exams, I had planned to go to a friend’s place directly from school and then go to the mall. I was with seven of my girlfriends and we were all laughing around, while I was oblivious to anything, my friend pointed out I had a stain. It should be noted, at the age of thirteen, when I got my first period, I had no idea what they were. I didn’t know what a stain was. I was so mortified when my friend pointed out the blood patch on my skirt, without even thinking, I blurred out, “Oh, I had a nose bleed this morning and wiped my nose with my white skirt, so that’s why the blood stain.” My friends laughed a little but then they called my friends mother. Aunty explained to me what had happened, she told me I had gotten my period and this is very normal. All my friends said they had already started theirs a few months back.
My friends had been talking about something in very hush hush for sometime and every time I asked them, won’t tell me because they feared I will go tell my father or talk to him about it, as I have always been very close to my father. My friend’s mother helped me with the sanitary napkin and then she called my mother, she congratulated my mother, as her daughter was now ‘grown up’. After the whole adrenaline of the situation, I carried on going to the mall with my friends and had a great time. In the evening when my mother picked me up, she didn’t say anything about me starting my menstruating cycle; she went to the chemist, bought a packet of sanitary napkins and told me where she kept them in the house. The sanitary napkins were neatly wrapped in newspaper and put in black polythene.
My mother is a teacher and she never taught me about menstruation, she never spoke about it, I was not prepared for my first period and the same thing happened with my younger sister. My mother never prepared her and informed her so when my younger sister got her first period, she ended up crying for hours. Even today, my mother is not comfortable talking about menstruation. Terrible cramps come with the line, “mother nature is here.”
Up until recently, I didn’t think about this. But for my project under WaSH at my organization Centre for Social Action where I work with the Katkari tribe of Raigad, I had to talk about menstruation and I wanted to understand the menstrual habits of the women in the SHG (Self Help Group). It took me three months to bring up the topic of menstruation, I was not sure when was the right time and I always thought, the women won’t be comfortable and they might not like talking about it. Then it occurred to me, maybe I’m not comfortable talking about it. I had no one to talk to me about menstruation, except that lousy 8th grade chapter.
Why do we not talk about menstruation openly, why is it a taboo topic When I checked with Sister at our partner organization, that I wanted to talk about menstrual habits with the SHG women, she was hesitant and also told me, the women would be shy and won’t want to talk about certain things. My other concern was that I normally get time to have conversations with the SHG when they are doing the livelihood activities, which is making pickle, papad, laboo etc.
I was not sure if it was right to talk about periods when food is being prepared.
Periods have often been known as something which is not pure; it is often a synonym to dirty in a lot of societies, which is why, very subconsciously, I was scared to bring the topic up, especially when the women were preparing food items. After having a conversation with my fellowship program team mentor, Swati, and discussing this with her, I decided to just have the conversation about menstruation with the SHG.
I started by telling them about my project WaSH, which they were now well aware of, I told them I wanted to talk about Paali (Marathi word for period). The women giggled a little and then they didn’t say anything. I asked them what product they used during their menstrual cycle, only two women told me they use cloth pad, which they make at home, and they spoke on behalf of everyone. Everyone used cloth pads, which were made at home, they are aware of sanitary napkins, sold in the market but has never used them. I also asked about the changing and cleaning habits of the cloth pads. They wash their pads but it is not done at home and the cloth pads are put for drying far from their homes and people’s eyes. I also pushed on the changing habits, Baby Tai started to say she changes her cloth pad once a day but Vimal Tai interrupted and said they change it thrice. I asked about any infections or problems they faced due to the cloth pads; all the women said they are very comfortable using the cloth pad and haven’t faced any infections. The only problem they mentioned is staining, their saris often get stains and that’s their only issue with using cloth pads.
I was not sure if I should tell them to change to sanitary napkins immediately, they had been using cloth pads for years and they were comfortable with them. I was also reminded of few months back when I had the shift from sanitary pads to the menstrual cup, how difficult it was for me, even though I eventually started loving my menstrual cup and would never go back to sanitary pads, the initial shift was very hard and it took my friends months of convincing to make the shift.
I asked the SHG if they were open to change to something that will be more convenient for them now that they spend long hours working on the livelihood activities, the women were open to the idea, I also don’t want to just introduce them to sanitary napkins, I plan to give them a variety of options and let them make the choice for themselves, whatever works for them best should be the product they should use during their menstrual cycle. I still have a very long way to go and a lot of period conversation to have with the SHG; but I’m glad I got out of the period taboo and had the first talk. Also next time, my father asks me what’s wrong when I’m cramping; I’m telling him his daughter is on her period, it is time mother nature takes some rest.