I remember the day when one of my classmates in school got her first periods. Oh wait! Is saying ‘periods’ a taboo? Well then! I choose to break the unreasonable taboo here and say it aloud! So back in the day when most of the girls in my class did not know or experience what menstruation is, she was the one with a storehouse of knowledge on menstruation for us. But that happened later. Initially, she was on a three day off from school. Obviously, we went to call her out to play with us in the evening. She seemed completely fine but denied coming out with us. Perplexed, I went home and narrated the whole episode to my mother and mentioned to her that ‘she said she has menses’. Mom asked me to let her rest and that every woman has to get it during her early teens. She probably did not want to delve too much into the matter since I asked her while she was serving us food and that might have not been an appropriate forum to ask.
When my friend came back to school after three days, she hesitated satisfying our curiosity that what was menses all about? She was worried that one of us might discuss the same with the boys. A year later, we learnt about the human reproductive system in our biology class and then the secret was out to everyone! Thankfully, unlike many other friends of mine who mentioned that their teacher either skipped the chapter or asked them to glance at it at home or they themselves bunked the class; our school and teacher adhered to the syllabus and we learnt about the reproductive system right in seventh grade.
After almost more than a decade, the taboo still exists in our society. You are given a pack of sanitary napkins carefully wrapped in a brown paper or a black carry bag by the pharmacist, you need to be discreet when you carry one to the restroom to change and you have to lie to your manager calling in sick when you are actually having your period cramps! But why such secrecy for something that is very natural to women? Though there are lot of awareness drives conducted to make people be aware of periods and not to feel guilty and shy about it, rather tackle it the way it should be!
According to a survey by WHO, “India accounts for 27% of the world’s cervical cancer deaths, almost twice the global average’.” A report published by the Water Aid Survey 2009, “due to lack of facilities during menstruation, 41% girls in Nepal and 28% in India go absent from school or perform poorly.” This is the level of seriousness we are talking about. And is not just India or Nepal or any South East Asian countries, “about 65% of women and girls in Kenya can’t afford sanitary pads. Girls loose around 3.5 million learning days every month, due to lack of basic facilities during menses.”
I have been associated with one of the social groups formed of volunteers from different backgrounds and professions and I have been leading the group from one of the centres in India. Two years back we decided to introduce a new wing of women sanitation and hygiene and so we had to take up a survey on the sanitary habits women follow in slums. It was not much of a surprise to us when we heard women from various age groups and also the ones who have reached menopause that they use clothes during their periods! It was a task for us to make them understand that it is not just unhealthy but also can cause a lot of infection in women. As a starter we decided to handover sanitary pads in a pack of 10 to each woman in a targeted slum. And it has been two years since then that we are still donating the same every month. But the quantity we have been donating has reduced by a significant amount since they started buying them themselves and not just waiting on us to donate! But then awaited the bigger problem for us! What about the other women out there? What about the women who already have some infection due to unhealthy practices? Well, that’s something we are working on now. But this initiative made us look at the ugly side of the society with respect to menstruating women. Something we all shy away from and do not want to discuss in front of male counterparts, even during the time when we are suffering from serious cramps and feeling nauseated!
The movie ‘Padman’ was a step taken to create the awareness and challenges to a wider audience. But what impresses me more is the real life incident behind the script of the movie. How a man took the task to his hands to relieve his wife from the difficult days of menstruation and eliminate any unhealthy measures. And then came the ‘Padman’ challenge with people flashing a sanitary pad in their Instagram, facebook and twitter posts. But the challenge lies in making all the women be aware of safe menstrual practices and have access to sanitary napkins. Hopefully, in years to come we will be progressive in our thoughts and not just shy away from issues related to women hygiene but find a solution to them upfront.