Every year, on March 8, people all over the world celebrate International Women’s Day. It serves as a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change, and to celebrate acts of courage. It reminds people of the economic, social, cultural, and political accomplishments of empowered women. Nevertheless, as soon as the clock strikes twelve, these ambitious women are forgotten.
It was a regular school day in Bhangar village in Firozpur, a small district in Punjab, and a 12-year-old girl was excited to go home and play with her friends. Before she left, she went to the bathroom and was shocked to see blood on her underwear. She thought death was knocking on her door. Her friend thought she had cancer. Another assumed she was injured. None of these girls knew why they were suddenly bleeding, and why their stomachs were “paining.”
This was not normal.
Later, her mother told her that she was menstruating, and that she had finally become a woman.
It was that time of the month, menstruation — the discharge of blood from the inner lining of the uterus through the vagina. Around the world, most girls used a pad or a tampon — white, cotton-like materials that protected and absorbed the blood.
She had no effective means to prevent this leakage. She used an old rag; she hadn’t even heard of the word “pad” before we met. She wasn’t aware that using old rags is unhygienic and dangerous for her body, and she was too afraid to ask her mother for a clean cloth.
Why did she have to be afraid?
Kajal was forced to live in a cowshed until her monthly menstrual cycle was completed.
Whoever touched her, or even saw her, had to wash their hands to prevent germs. She considered it normal. So did her friends.
Not only that, during this time, she was not allowed to cook any food, because it would become polluted. Not allowed to go to the temple, as it would be a disgrace to God. Not allowed to touch the flowers in the garden because they would shrivel. Not allowed to go in the fields as the wheat harvest would be cursed. Not allowed to touch any idols because it would be degrading. Not allowed to touch bread as her hands were considered contaminated.
“Even bread?” I asked her. She told me that her mother believed it. “It must be true,” she said.
She heard stories of her friend’s hair getting spoilt or her nail paint getting chipped because she was on her period.
I knew that menstruation is considered a taboo in India, but I didn’t know that the cultural shame about periods was this intense.
I met Kajal in December while accompanying an NGO on their trip, gathering more information about the situation of these young girls. Ten minutes into our conversation, she broke out in tears, saying, “I can’t do this anymore. I pretended like everything was fine.
“I wish I wasn’t a girl.”
I felt helpless. I didn’t know where to begin.
This is what made her a woman. This was something to be proud of and not ashamed. Humanity wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for periods. This process enables women to give birth, to experience motherhood.
I wanted her to go to a market and feel comfortable asking the shopkeeper for a pad. I wanted her to feel free to go to a temple and pray, to live inside her house, not a cowshed, and touch the beautiful flowers in the garden without being afraid. I wanted her to feel confident while going to the bathroom to change her pad. I wanted girls to discuss their struggles with each other. Most of all, I wanted them to support each other during this time.
Perhaps I was being overly optimistic, but I wanted her to grow up and talk to her daughter about periods without any hesitation, and laugh about her first experiences with periods, or the time when she thought she had an injury. I wanted her to say, “Remember that time when we would hide our pads from each other? This sense of comfort and freedom is so much better!”
I didn’t know how to explain my stance to her family. Hygiene was the first step, but I didn’t know how to convince her to use pads — they were too expensive in the market and she was sure her family would never waste their money on her hygiene.
Over the next 15 months, I collected cotton cloth from my neighbors and nearby hotels. Then, with the help of my grandfather, I set up a pad machine that could create absorbent, recyclable, biodegradable and reusable pads. I asked a few women to help layer cotton cloth to make soft, clean pads. Then, last summer, I organized another visit to Firozpur with the NGO. Furthermore, I prepared a quick presentation on menstrual hygiene.
In July, I went back to Bhangar village. Kajal recognized me and said hello. With Kajal’s help, we gathered about 15 teenage girls for this session. I spoke to them about periods, and the importance of hygiene, especially during menstruation. I handed them packets of pads and showed them how to use them properly.
They were shy and considered it a disgrace to talk about periods, even amongst each other. Kajal shivered when I handed her a pad. She was scared that her parents would find out and kick her out of the house.
But after a while, the girls felt more comfortable. They relaxed their body postures, smiled, discussed period pains, and were surprised to know that their struggles were so relatable. They might not have the courage to stand up to their families yet, but this session definitely evoked discussion about the harm caused due to the cultural stigma of menstruation.
It can take years, even generations, to change a taboo. It’s not perfect; girls still feel embarrassed while asking for a pad, or sitting on a couch during their period, afraid that there will be blood all over.
However, something as little as a conversation about periods can create a difference; it can evoke discussion and inspire girls to support each other and feel comfortable with themselves.
While some parts of India are modernizing, some still perpetuate stigmas from hundreds of years ago. Villages are the last stronghold of culture; however, it is necessary to reconsider the cultural norms that need to be changed and the beliefs that need to continue: “What’s worth preserving? What’s worth changing?”
The taboo of menstruation in India can cause real harm. I never want any other female to wish that she wasn’t a girl, to wish that she didn’t have her periods.
Challenging the cultural shame on menstruation and the disgust directed at a female when she’s on her period should be the main mission; it will help “transform the revulsion into respect,” and shift the “eww” into “oh.” It will not only be a movement but it will move minds.
It will not only bring salvation to Kajal and her friends, but also to the generations to come.
Navya Sethi is an opinions editor of The Woodstocker
Edited by Hyenjin Cho